World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

They were dining, Hayden and Olivia, with Nat Friar and his love, Mrs. Shaliston Baker. The dinner, served on Nat’s living-room table imperfectly cleared of books and the chess set, was as good as ever, with curried shrimp and tiny strawberries, but Nat was less bland. He was restless, he spilled the wine, and Ada Baker watched him nervously, like a little old cat watching its good but alarming friend, the woolly setter. Their example made Hayden and Olivia unusually gentle with each other. When Nat said, “After you two young people are married, as Ada and I have never had the courage to be, you mustn’t stay in the cautious splendor of Florence but try the world,” then Olivia put out her hand, to let it lie relaxed in Hayden’s.

Hayden explained the tidal phenomenon of Lorenzo Lundsgard, whom Nat had never seen. “He has depressing energy and touching reverence. It might interest you to meet him, Nat.”

“So that I may then re-enact the very sensible and enjoyable egotism of the Pharisee in gloating, ‘Thank God I am not as these tourists’?”

“Why not? By the way, Lundsgard sounded me out about making some money on the side as part-time researcher for him. I turned it down.”

“What,” wondered Nat, “is a researcher?”

“You are.”

“Young gentleman, I am a frowsty old bachelor. I am also a lie-abed and a secret drinker. I know what research is: something unpleasant that men in white jackets, like barbers, do to dogs in dungeon laboratories. But I don’t know what a researcher is.”

“He goes out and does the marketing.”

“You say that this Dr. Lundsgard,” fretted Nat, “would like a researcher in medieval folkways?”

“Yes. Bring him in two facts and he’ll cook them into a whole lecture.”

“Do you suppose he could use me, Hayden?”

“Could a village bank ‘use’ J. Pierpont Morgan? Could a popular preacher ‘use’ an archangel?”

“The answer is not necessarily ‘yes’ in either case. Their methods might be different. But the fact is . . .”

Nat spoke heavily, looking down into his beard.

“This may be the last dinner I shall ever give. My cable has finally come, refusing reprieve: the company to which I so cannily switched all my funds, not long ago, has failed. My income is finished. I need a job. This is the first time I have ever said, ‘I need a job.’”

Mrs. Baker cried out and she, the fragile and prudent, ran to Nat and shamelessly sat on his knee, her head against his shoulder.

“I have been too cowardly to tell Ada till I should be fortified by the presence of you strong barbarians. Yes, with considerable ingenuity, I have managed to lose every cent I had.”

Mrs. Baker said harshly, “Nonsense! You have all that I have.”

“But you haven’t anything, my beloved; just enough to exist on. It doesn’t matter. For some time I have been preparing for this. I haven’t paid my rent for six months, and my poor servant, I haven’t paid her now for two months and two days, and this past week she has been bringing me in vegetables from her brother, who is a market-gardener and a reader of Petrarch. He is really our host, this evening, but this is the last time I shall impose on him. By the way, he speaks with an interesting Livornese accent with a word, now and then, that I cannot spot except as a Greek survival. . . . Oh, Ada, Ada, don’t, my dear!”

Mrs. Baker was sobbing, close against him, all her pride and frail austerity gone.

“It’s not so bad, Ada. It’s a new adventure. I shall now work according to other people’s notions of what my usefulness may be, instead of my own. If there is anything here, or even back in the States, that I can do that is not too honest or too cultural, I shall do it gladly. Meantime, Hayden, do you think this Dr. Lundsgard might hire me for a season? I am very punctual and tidy — well, reasonably. And at my age, I shall come very cheap.”

Hayden telephoned to Lundsgard that there was a chance he might be able to get the renowned Professor Friar to give him some “material,” and of course Dr. Friar was one of only eleven men living who knew European History minute by minute, acre by acre, from 400 A.D. to 1800.

Lundsgard was excited. “I have some of Dr. Friar’s articles cut out. You honestly think he might brief me? How would I get to meet him? Should I go and call on him at his home? Would you be willing to take me there?”

Hayden reflected that the shabbiness of Nat’s living room would cut a hundred dollars a week off his market value, and he said hastily, “No, I think that as you would be his superior officer, it would be protocol for him to call on you.”

“I don’t insist on form, with a big shot like him, though of course good form — well, you know how it is. Good form is one of the things that I intend to take back to the States, along with philosophy; I mean the super-high-tone good form, like Ugo’s. So maybe . . . But ask the Prof to pick his own hour to come here. Does he ever sneak in a drink?”

“If you had some very dry sherry for him, I think he might take a sip.”

“I’ll have some so dry he’ll think it’s from Kansas.”

Nat Friar put on his one good gray suit, he washed and combed his beard, he had a hefty glass of cognac at home, he looked Olympian and felt even better. But in Lundsgard’s suite he spoke with mild delicacy and only touched the glass of offertory sherry.

Hayden fretted to himself, “Nat and I are selling the most honest goods on the market, and yet we’re somehow being fakes. I don’t like selling one’s own self — for Nat or for Olivia or for me.”

Encouraged by Lundsgard, Nat started on long tales of the old Italy: Amadeo the Green Count; Pope Anacletus II, who was of the great Jewish family of the Pierleoni; that poet and gallant, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who was to become Pope Pius II, to build the mountain village of Pienza as his monument and to lead a crusade; the Wolf of Gubbio, a beast wolf not a human one, who was converted and became a practising Christian; Clarice Strozzi, who cursed the tyrants out of the Medici Palace. The stories were as full of gaiety as they were of erudition, and Lundsgard was in ecstasy. He humbly addressed Nat as “sir,” and he kept ejaculating over the chronicles, “Why, that’s corking, sir, that’s superb, that’s just what I need!”

Hayden wondered why Lundsgard did not take notes, till he discovered that the door to the office was part open and that in there Evelyn Hoxler was thriftily getting it all down in shorthand.

Lundsgard hesitated, “I know of course, sir, that if you cared to give me your invaluable aid for a month or so, I couldn’t even begin to pay you what such priceless learning is worth. But would a hundred and fifty dollars a week somewhat compensate you?”

Hayden was certain that Nat would not know whether that was fabulously large or pitifully small, and he stepped in with, “Why Lundsgard, you ought certainly to pay him at least two hundred a week!”

Lundsgard’s glance was very sharp, somewhat resentful, and he said curtly, “We’ll make it one-seventy-five.”

“That sounds very nice,” beamed Nat.

With no further “sirs,” Lundsgard ordered, “Professor, you start in here next Monday morning, nine o’clock.”

“Nine? Nine in the MORNING? Very well,” said Nat disconsolately.

All day long — that is, from nine-thirty or ten or eleven, when he arrived, and leaving out the hour that he took off now and then when he went out for a drink — in an old velvet jacket and an antique straw gardening hat with which he shaded his eyes, Nat sat happily dictating anecdotes out of the most unhackneyed (though reasonably accurate) history.

He thought the dictation machine was the most patient ear he had ever found. He sat with the mouthpiece tucked into his beard, smiling at the machine and making explanatory gestures in its direction, telling it about kings and cardinals as though it was likely already to have heard a great deal about them. Nat paid no attention at all to Lundsgard’s visitors, such as smoochers who came in to sell Lundsgard original Botticellis for twenty-five dollars.

Translated into lire, which just now were about six hundred to the dollar, Nat’s hundred and seventy-five dollars a week seemed to him like Babylonian wealth. He paid his debts to his servant and her brother, he gave a little something to his landlord, and he bought for himself a fine purple corduroy smoking-jacket with pockets large enough to carry books. For Hayden he bought an Aldine Aristophanes and for Mrs. Shaliston Baker, a silver tea-caddy.

Lundsgard never criticized Nat for unpunctuality. He just read page on page of medieval oddities transcribed by Evelyn Hoxler from Nat’s recorded prattle, and chuckled, “My dear Professor Friar, you come awful dear, but you sure are a treasure!”

“Dr. Lundsgard is a very kind man,” said Nat to Hayden.

“I suppose he is.”

“I just wonder why he took up the crabbed calling of being a medievalist. He would have been so useful as a singing cowboy — if he can sing.”

“If he can punch cattle.”

“Exactly. But always very kind.”

“Oh, yes — yes, certainly — very kind.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57