World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 7

No. She was little likely to be an intimate of his, he thought as they finished dinner. He had that chilled feeling, familiar even to so unflirtatious a man, of finding a pretty girl at a party, finding her warm and fetching, then having her, for no evident reason, turn into a stranger.

But he still admired Olivia’s assured tautness and a moving strength in her that was fantastically different from the swishing excitements of an Art Appreciation Class. When he was with her he felt that it would not be an effeminate hobby but solid work for a man to stay here — for a while — and labor to understand the strangely flowering beauty of the Middle Ages. He would bathe in the magic and perilous waters of medieval history: proud-colored, hot, heroic, vicious knights in armor that had been decorated by voluptuous goldsmiths, dungeons and silent convents, exiles on Venetian galleys standing east for Cyprus. He was lost in an enchantment of which he did not understand even the vocabulary.

If only he could be guided through this wizardry by Olivia, whose hands lay still on the table, hands not thin and meanly desirous but arrogant, ivory in every line carved to loveliness. The hollow between her thumb and forefinger was a polished curve. They were hands that could grasp and hold, and they excited him even while he was talking prosily:

“If I stay here, I’d like to get a sort of permanent place cheaper than the big hotels. Have you any ideas?”

“The pensione I’m living in, the Tre Corone, is all right. The furniture is simple and the food is good and — this interests a professional romanticist like myself — it occupies two floors of one of the oldest Florentine houses, the Palazzo Spizzi.”

To invite him, or at least permit him, to be near to her, near to her ivory hands, her lips that were dark-red in a lovely and tragic ivory mask — that stirred him, till he reflected that she was probably so indifferent to him that she did not care whether he lived next door or in Novaya Zemlya.

Nor did she mention the pensione again, as they finished dinner and tramped to the Spizzi. But next day he was busily inspecting it.

A palazzo in Italy signifies only a large house, usually of stone, built a few hundred years ago for a very rich and very noble family who became very rich and noble by conducting a war, with a large cut in the pillage, or by lending money to popes and kings and dukes who conducted wars. These houses are lordly, rivaled today only by movie theaters. In Florence, the Palazzo Spizzi, on the Lungarno not far from the Ponte Vecchio, is one of the lordliest, with granite walls in rough rustica.

There are surly, prison-barred windows on the ground floor, but on the four floors above, elegant Gothic windows with stone tracery. Along the street are bronze torch-holders, and rings for tethering the horses of knights dead these five hundred years, with a long stone bench on which once lounged the armed servants of the magnate, waiting for commands which might mean fun or death, and probably both.

You go through an arched gateway into an arcaded central court, with high-colored heraldic shields and one sacred fresco on the smooth stone walls. The court and its little statues of lyric fauns are dominated by a vast stone stairway. Here, the Medici hurried, and the Pazzi, Bardi, Rucellai, Cavalcanti. One of them, one day, walked in white carnival satin that suddenly, here on this green-molded spot, became streakily variegated with red, as the expert assassin from Forli slid in his dagger. And over there, most briefly afterward, the assassin had his toes lightly toasted before his head was jaggedly hacked off.

In this niche of crimson and gold and crocus-colored mosaic, a Spizzi garroted his ardent bride. It is now a rented storage space for bicycles.

Since 1550, even Florence has changed. Today, the doors along the arcade give on the office of a Polish refugee specialist in radiotherapy, a tearoom kept by an old English lady, an embroidery shop kept by an even older Scotch lady, and a ferocious left-wing book shop kept by two young Welsh ladies who play piano duets and admire Jacob Epstein and drink nothing but vodka and diuretic mineral water.

You pant up the stairs to the offices of machinery agents and of buyers representing stores in Dallas, Montreal and Oslo. The two floors above these constitute the Pensione Tre Corone, and up to it climbed Hayden Chart. It was a racking ascension, but Hayden felt strong and fresh, his accident healed over.

In a standard pensione hallway of green rep walls, a reed chair and a mummied palm, a door painted with ferocious roses was opened for him by an extremely handsome Italian young man wearing the man-about-Florence standard uniform of wavy black hair, cigarette, checkered brown-and-gray sports jacket and gray slacks. Hayden did not at all care for the thought of this jazz satyr living in the house with Olivia, and he was relieved at the coming of Mrs. Manse, the manager.

She was a small, active Italian widow who had married a Birmingham traveling salesman and lived for years in England. She spoke English like an A.B.C. teashop waitress, a refined duchess, a Cardiff coal miner and a Tuscan peasant, all at once.

“Oh, yes, we have a very nice room with a love-ely view of the Duomo and the Santa Annunziata and Fiesole and EVERYTHING and a private bath — ooh, just like home. But you’re not English, are you?”

“I’m an American.”

“Ow . . . Well, we quite like Americans here — the better class. You are not married?”

“No.”

“But then, you’re not the wild sort that would want to be entertaining — uh — PEOPLE in your room, and I’m sure you will want full pensione.”

“What is that?”

“Both luncheon and dinner here daily. It’s so much more satisfactory, you know, to have your meals here, ALL of them, and not go risking your digestion at these restaurants. Res-tau-rants! And not knowing what you’re getting and the pasta stale and the veal tough and no pure Chianti, such as we serve. Mrs. Engineer Purdy, one of our very oldest guests, often says to me, ‘Signora, I simply do not understand how you can afford to serve such love-ely pure unmixed Chianti at the shockingly low price we pay here!’ And of course she KNOWS! So shall we say full pensione?”

“No, I plan to take at least one meal a day out.”

“It’s a mistake, but of course I never even give advice to my gentlemen but it’s a mistake and quite hard on me, with such love-ely clean rooms and serving such a variety of food and the butter always fresh, at such shockingly low prices as you pay, but shall we say half-pensione then?”

They would say that, yes, with luncheon taken here, Hayden agreed, proud of being so businesslike in securing his first Italian home and forgetting only to ask the amount of those shockingly low prices. He was dazed by the Anglo–Italian verbal hemorrhage and yet he felt secure. He had lived with Mrs. Manse, under different names and accents, in Newlife, Amherst, Denver, New York, London, and he knew that he would be cheated only the correct proportion.

“And when you are not able to be here for colazione, will you kindly let me know twenty-four hours beforehand? So many gentlemen are thoughtless about that,” said Mrs. Manse.

She introduced him to a bedroom, smallish, square, with blank plaster walls, which yet delighted him, for the one window was Gothic-pointed and the ceiling was groined. It had surely been part of some greater salon in the early palace, or perhaps of a chapel, and the clean bareness of it was proper for the studious monk he meant to become.

The varnished yellow pine bed was narrow, not bad; there was a large white wardrobe for clothes, a large white table for the notes on Italian history that he would certainly be making and for the profound books that he would certainly buy and possibly even read.

There was a hideous but comfortable yellow-velvet armchair with a fiddle-shaped back, a straight chair, a pinched radiator, and a composition stone floor, with a rug beside the bed. . . . But he looked unsuccessfully for his dancing girl in the rug.

The bathroom was little larger than the ancient tub, but it was adequate, and even contained articles which seemed to Hayden somewhat perplexing and certainly of great superfluousness. One of these was a bootjack. He had ridden horses in the Berkshire Hills, on dude ranches, on the cheery camping journeys through the Rockies on which Caprice had been both at her most complaining and her most recklessly gay, but he did not think it likely that he would ride a Western pony up to the Palazzo Spizzi and tether it to one of the great bronze rings below.

The place seemed to him almost voluptuous when Mrs. Manse explained that only one bedroom in three at the Tre Corone had its private bath.

What starred his room and filled it with light and stimulation for the daytime was the window and the vista of towers and fourteenth-century battlements and, down below, the humbler roofs of tiles, cherry-colored, soft rose, violent crimson or pale orange, above yellow-plaster walls. A top-floor tenement down there — it was, he learned afterwards, above a ground-floor leather shop full of gold-tooled purses and small jewel boxes — had an open loggia and a terrace with geraniums and with goldfinches in cages, and a broad-sterned woman was hanging out a hot red shirt to dry. He would be seeing real Florentines, and not just palace walls, spacious but decaying.

Mrs. Manse, that unlaureated mistress of psychology, knew that he would take this room. She knew! When he did, at last, remember to confer delicately about the price, he was so under the spell that she overcharged him grossly: she charged him at least one-half as much as such a cell would have cost in America.

He did not quite dare to ask how near to his own door was that of Dr. Olivia Lomond. He found later that it was eight from his, round a corner of the matting-covered stone corridor.

All this was on the upper floor of the pensione. On the floor below were still more bedrooms — there were twenty-eight in all — with the office, the dining room, the lounge. The dining room was simple and white and cheerful, with white-clothed tables for one or two or four, each of them with coquettish napkin rings and a tight bouquet of asters and, usually, a Chianti bottle. The serving-table — the credenza — had once been an over-gorgeous drawing-room table of marquetry with gilded metal edges.

The lounge must have been a great salon of the ferocious and devoutly pious Spizzi family: lofty, vaulted, cold. Around somewhat dreary damask-covered tables, displaying Italian motoring magazines, were modern chairs artfully but unhappily devised of twisted red-stained wood, or aged refugee chairs from destroyed parlors, resembling indigent gentlewomen. There was a case of novels and travel books which fleeing guests had intelligently left behind: a French guidebook to Sicily dated 1899 and such romances as Lively Lassie o’ London Town, by Mrs. Beth Levinson Knibbs–Crochet.

In this clean shabbiness you could rest familiarly enough, and the lounge windows looked down on the Ponte Vecchio, that venerable bridge of shops devoted now to sellers of artificial pearls and not to Donati defending the crossing with loud swords.

Late that afternoon, with small trunk and ill-assorted bags and a hastily purchased new blue-silk cravat, Hayden moved into his cell at the Tre Corone.

He met his floor maid, Perpetua, a smiling, black-eyed, powerful woman of fifty, only just slightly felonious, who would also be his waitress, valet, chamberlain, social arbiter, and chief professor in the Italian tongue: a low-built peasant in black dress and white apron who seemed to be on duty from five A.M. to midnight.

Shyly, not knowing how he should dress, he went down to his first dinner, at eight, to risotto and boiled beef, and met most of the Tre Corone guests. They too were in lounge clothes. In treachery to all tradition, there was no retired British colonel with lady, nor even a British major or vicar.

He encountered, instead, a Hungarian widow of fifty and her daughter, highly polylingual and undevoted to Bolsheviks, a round-faced American graduate student who listened to and sometimes understood lectures on Italian art at the university, an out-of-favor Italian ex-diplomat, a Dutch baron devoted to cameos, to Americans and other novelties, an Italian lawyer with three daughters, a soured French silk-buyer, and an Italo–American agent for documentary films, who wanted to discuss trout-fishing in Maine with Hayden.

Dr. Lomond — Olivia — sat by herself at a small table and read the air-mail continental Time. She looked at Hayden twice before she remembered him (that is what she thought he would think) and she nodded and said nothing and went back to reading about Congressman Marcantonio, the latest biography of Susan B. Anthony, murder by a balding man late at night in a rubber-boot warehouse, revolution in the Celebes, the mortality rate in successor-disease affecting former confidants of Stalin, chemobiologimicrophotography in the University of Leyden, and the other brighter topics of the day. Olivia’s compressed lips were hidden from him by the Time cover, portraying, in color, a fabulous chain-store organizer, with a background of prunes, motorcycles, cash registers and bathing caps, and instead of Olivia’s glass-smooth cheeks or hostile, inquiring eyes, Hayden studied only his plate of saffron-yellow rice.

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