On the northern rim of Florence, toward the mutely watching mountains, Fiesole perches on its hilltop like a monstrous eagle, with its bell-tower for upstretched neck. It looks down on the flood plain of the Arno, which is Florence, and remembers that it was a ponderous-walled Etruscan city twenty-five hundred years ago, when Florence was a nameless huddle of mud huts. Up here, Boccaccio’s maidens stayed the plague with song and most improper story.
Half a mile from the Fiesole piazza, on the northern edge of the cliff, is the small Raspanti Inn. The window-side tables look into the sweetly climbing Mugnone Valley, where the river runs through vineyards and barley fields, past farmhouses of plaster, red-tiled and yellow-walled, with airy loggias for the summer.
Hayden had bought a tiny Italian car — a topolino, people called it: a “little mouse.” To get into it you had to hoist your knees up to the level of your forehead, but it had a gallant motor for hill-climbing, and it hugged the corkscrew curves of the Italian mountains, or went happily cantering past the enormous blue omnibuses. In it he had flashed to Arezzo, and to the old walled town of Lucca, now that, in mid-February, spring was imminent, the grass between the olive trees was tinsel-green and mimosa was displaying its canary-colored showers. Olivia had gone with him once or twice, her obedience still astonishing him, and today, at the Raspanti, she was seemingly contented to be with him.
“One of those old farmhouses down there,” he said, as they finished their fedora cake and ordered coffee and Strega, “a man, a family, could live quietly there.”
“For a while.”
“If there’s a good bus, so you could go to the Laurentian Library and the Uffizi,” granted Olivia.
“A lazy spring day like this, I can’t imagine going on anywhere else, not even to Egypt.”
“But I’m not lazy. Industry is my one poor virtue.”
“Olivia! Let’s talk — really talk!”
“Yes. We are two lone ships in a waste of the South Pacific, the days so empty and the nights so long under the stars. Why can’t we sail together?”
“Maybe the ships are going in opposite directions.”
“Can’t they stop a moment and get closer together?”
“Your poetic inquiry sounds very much like what my vulgar students at Winnemac would call ‘propositioning me.’”
“Olivia, you say things that shock me! You chatter about ancient Greek tarts so frankly that it’s embarrassing, and yet you seem afraid of any natural, friendly contact — like this.” He took her hand, across the table, and she flinched. “What makes you so abnormal?”
She said irritably, “Abnormal! My dear young man! You know nothing about me. I may have ties that are entirely unknown to you.”
“I doubt it. I look at your mail on the hall table — shamelessly. If you have some magnet, he’s probably imaginary. Like my own obsession with . . . Olivia, I never have talked to you about my wife; haven’t talked to anybody much, I guess. I just told you she was killed in a motor accident. The way she died is important, because sometimes I feel I murdered her by my careless driving, and start brooding. Now, I make myself come out of it, and realize I’ve just been wallowing in a melodrama of regret, like a child scaring itself by drawing spiders. I’m trying, at least, to look at her death the way a good doctor would.
“I do honor her memory. She was extraordinarily plucky and quick-witted, even if she wasn’t kind-hearted like those people you met — the Windelbanks. (Caprice always thought they were a pair of stuffed shirts, by the way, with minds that weren’t so much photographic as phonographic.) She was a bluebird. But she only liked the accidental things about me: my tennis and swimming, and I used to be not so bad a dancer till I got tired of the highballs and the shrieking and the swapping of wives. But she never liked any of my virtues.”
“Have you many?”
“Yes. I have. As you know. I’m dependable and punctual and a fine designer of unfine houses. Those tedious virtues. But I also have a fighting conviction that men can be more than trout-fishermen; that there must have been human beings who could build San Miniato. I have much more imagination about possible ways of living than you have, of course.”
“Oh! HAVE you!”
“Much. You tackle the Middle Ages to get them down in figures, as a job, but I take a chance on making myself ridiculous by feeling them as life, visibly around us still. You — this continual aversion of yours to the normal male . . .”
“Oh, quit it! Don’t try to show off your knowledge of psychoanalysis as well as of Lucrezia Borgia!”
“Olivia, you’ve never let yourself live. Lucrezia — they didn’t hate her because she did any poisoning, but because she could handle so many lovers. Why don’t you imitate her, not just dig her poor lovely bones out of their paper grave? You could be adorable, but you’re nothing but an expert in pedagogy researching in the quickest methods of teaching knitting.”
“There’s an American girl wandering around Europe somewhere, Roxanna, a redhead, that I despair of because she’s gone native with a gang of artistic heels. She’s rackety and undisciplined, and she doesn’t know whether Borgia was a duke or a suburb, and yet I give her more chance to get the sinful, glorious human heart of Europe than you’ll ever have. Oh, try living! It was quite well thought of by Titian!”
“You are so breezy and Western and uninhibited. You are so naive.”
“You’ve called me that before.”
“Naturally! So naive in believing that every woman ought to be a college-campus petter!” She added, with spite and something not unlike jealousy, “As your redheaded Miss Roxanna apparently is!”
“She is no friend of petting. She doesn’t need to be! Yes, I am Western. I won’t eat my breakfast unless I can lasso it. And yet in my attitude toward self-repressing women, I am exactly like Nat Friar or Ugo Tramontana. We consider them monstrosities.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re babbling — oh, not so much coarse as boyish nonsense! I’d rather you WERE coarse.”
She arose, erect and angry in her blue nylon dress. He said to himself, “She wants me to be coarse? I will be. She’s so armored that a bowman has to try a shot at her. Let’s see if she’s human.” He slipped his arm round her, his hand over her shoulder, a sweet slim curve that contented his palm.
She seemed not rigid and prudish but still with terror. She whimpered, like a bewildered girl shocked by a trusted old friend, “Oh, don’t — oh, don’t — oh, please!”
He had quick pity for her. He released her, and she dropped into her chair at the table again, her face all one raddled blur of emotion, and as he sat down, she spoke tremblingly:
“Yes, there is. . . . It is true. I’m not quite natural toward any man younger than Professor Friar. But there is a reason. It’s not me. I was turned so.
“I was twenty — so young and undeveloped but so sure I was wise. I was a prodigy; I got my bachelor’s degree at eighteen and my master’s at nineteen. At a big state university, this was. I was working for my doctor’s degree and teaching a couple of classes and reading Professor Vintner’s themes for him. I thought I knew all about vices and seductions and the elegant wiles of gallants in the Middle Ages, but I had never taken time to study them first-hand, on the U campus in this Middling Age. Though plenty of invitations! I knew all about Cellini but nothing about the local quarterback.
“Leslie Vintner, DEAR Professor Vintner, my faculty preceptor. European History from 450 to 1750. Tall and gray-eyed and a little rustic in his looks, but Heavens, so slick and cosmopolitan in his talk! He was very, very learned and clever; he had studied at Montpellier and Rome and Berne and the Sorbonne; he used to read Provençal poetry aloud, delightful lyrics about roses and Maytime meadows and sighing lovers. But he knew about all up-to-date diversions in modern Paris, too — he SAID: vintages and baronesses and baccarat and Josephine Baker singing. . . . Of course he had a cautious wife, with a small income of her own. Dreary and getting plump.
“He encouraged me — so fatuously, I see now. We used to sit side by side on the greasy leatherette couch in his office, under the reproduction of Fra Angelico saints, and smoke cigarettes and drink tea with gin in it, and he’d tell me I was going to be another Madame de Sévigné. I was going to be poet, scholar, court beauty, and Gabriele D’Annunzio would come back from his private perfumed hell to worship me.
“Leslie and I were most superior to that hustling campus. We were pagans, we were winged spirits from the High Renaissance, only (and honestly, he could do the most convincing repressed sob) just now his wings were being clipped by his nasty big-foot wife, and only in my sweet, languorous presence could he put on his rainbow-colored plumes.
“I really worshipped him. I was an innocent, healthy, eager kid, so devoted, so proud, but it wasn’t just lambkin love. I would have done murder for him, or sung over washing his undershirts. I wrote sonnets about him that I was too humble to show him, and I went out of my way to walk past his house (that nasty gingerbread cake!) late at night, and if there was a party and they were laughing, I was so jealous that my stomach quivered. I used to keep a silk-tipped French cigarette butt of his in my purse, and take it out and kiss it.
“So of course I fell for him completely whenever it amused him to finish up the torture. Honestly, he shouldn’t have killed anything as young and loyal as I was!
“Then he got impatient. I forgot everything I had learned from history — I thought he really meant his promises! I thought we would be found out and both of us fired from the university, of COURSE, and I was all ready to live in a shack with him and do the cooking and keep chickens and love it, and then some day he would be divorced and marry me and Yale or California would understand what valorous medieval souls we were and give him a call, and we’d live in a tower of glory and . . . You know.
“What’s worse, I suppose I girlishly trilled all this to him, and too often. He must have become pretty bored and impatient, because I certainly wasn’t so anesthetic and sneering then that I chilled demanding gentlemen like Mr. Hayden Chart — OR Prince Ugo! I was recklessly passionate — panting. Poor Leslie! He did a magnificent job of kicking me out. He really made it all quite clear — though he must have been irritated by the way I sobbed.
“He told me that he had never thought of me as anything but a sentimental fool, very bad at exact dates, very confused in my literary style, and a perfect pest about telephoning him at home. And a skinny, ugly untouchable. The way I lavished all the passion in me, he said, made it seem cheap.
“Even before I had quit sobbing, while I was still wiping my nose with my coarse little cotton handkerchief — it was all I could afford but I did like it; it had such a nice rose stamped in one corner — before I had finished crying I had determined that I would never again betray passion — or feel any. I never have. I’ve ruled my feelings like mutinous soldiers. And so — and now — that frigidity has become natural. For all my life!”
She rose slowly, and he with her.
He kissed her cheek, very lightly, and sighed, “Poor darling. Dreadful!” Not till they were packed together in the topolino did he go on: “It would not be too ridiculous to think of us as married. We’re both lost orphans. We might seek the City of Peace together.”
For a second he took his right hand from the steering wheel to grip hers; for a second she returned the pressure. But she answered resolutely:
“Hayden, I wouldn’t trust myself to marry anybody. I think I’ve controlled my natural storminess, but as a wife I would be too attentive and absorbing. And I’m ambitious; I want high academic rank, but that I could moderate. The trouble is that if I gave it up for marriage, I’d be ambitious then for my poor, driven husband. I’d push him into absurdly big undertakings — influential people and get in on all the gaudiest shows. I’ve become a cool scholar, not bad, and that’s how I want to stay. Though if I did go native and fall for anybody — it conceivably could be you, Mr. Chart!”
“You’re gentle, but you aren’t obsequious. And you’re so young and credulous. You actually believe that Bertran de Born was a gorgeous figure of living tapestry, and not Question III, Section 2 — if you pass him, you can teach Advanced Principles of Medieval Mysticism and Chivalry to the hockey team. As I shall. That makes being your wife sound attractive. But I’m a dynamo; I’m not safe. Guard yourself!”
When they parted, in the hall of the Tre Corone, he kissed her cheek again. She clutched his arm, turning her face of an ivory saint toward him with a sharp breath, and then she fled.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52