Copyright © 2001 Steerforth Press.
Translation copyright © 2001 Tiina Nunnally.All rights reserved.
The music surged up the Via Condotti just as Helge Gram turned onto thestreet in the twilight. It was The Merry Widow, played at a preposterously fasttempo, making it resound like a wild fanfare. And small, dark-haired soldiersstormed past him in the cold afternoon, as if they were no less than part of aRoman cohort which, at a furious double time, was about to fall upon the barbarianhosts rather than peacefully return home to the barracks for supper. Orperhaps that was exactly the reason they were in such a hurry, thought Helgewith a smile; for as he stood there with his coat collar turned up against thecold, an oddly historic feeling came over him. But then he began hummingalong "No, a man will never understand women" and continued downthe street in the direction where he knew the Corso must be.
He stopped at the corner and looked up the street. So that's how the Corsolooked. A ceaselessly flowing stream of traffic in the cramped thoroughfareand a churning throng of people on the narrow sidewalk.
He stood still and watched the stream flow past. And he smiled, because hewas thinking that now, every single evening, he could head up this street in thedark through the swarms of people until it became as familiar to him as KarlJohans Gaten back home.
Oh, he had the urge right now to walk and walk, through all the streetsof Rome, gladly all night long. He was thinking of the city as it lay belowhim a short time ago, when he stood on Monte Pincio and watched the sungo down.
Clouds had covered the entire sky to the west, crowded together like smallpale gray lambs. And the sun gave them glowing golden-amber edges as it sankbehind. Beneath the pale sky lay the city, and Helge suddenly knew that thiswas precisely how Rome should look not the way he had dreamed of it, butprecisely like this, as it was.
Yet everything else he had seen on this trip had disappointed him because itwasn't the way he had imagined beforehand, as he went about at home, longingto go out and see things. At last, now at last there was one sight that wasricher than all his dreams. And it was Rome.
A wide plain of rooftops lay beneath him in the hollow of the valley, ajumble of roofs on buildings that were old and new, tall buildings and lowbuildings. They looked as if they had been put up quite haphazardly and asbig as was needed at the time; only in a few places did the streets cut regularclefts through the mass of rooftops. And this whole world of disorderly linesthat intersected each other at thousands of sharp angles lay rigid and motionlessbeneath the pale sky, in which an invisible sinking sun sporadicallyignited a tiny rim of light on the edges of the clouds. The sun hung dreamingunder a delicate, whitish mist, into which not a single spurting column ofsmoke blended, because there were no factory smokestacks in sight, and nosmoke came from any of the comical little tin chimneys sticking up from thebuildings. Grayish yellow lichen lay on the old, rounded, rust-brown rooftiles, and greenery and small shrubs with yellow flowers grew along theeaves. Around the edges of the terraces stood silent, dead agaves in urns, andfrom the cornices twining plants spilled in silent, dead cascades. Whereverthe upper story of a taller building loomed above its neighbors, dark, deadwindows stared out from a red-yellow or gray-white wall or else theyslumbered with closed shutters. But out of the mist rose loggias, looking likethe stumps of old watchtowers, and arbors made of wood and tin had beenerected on the rooftops.
And above everything hovered the church domes, a countless number ofthem. The magnificent gray dome far off in the distance, on the other side ofthe place where Helge caught a glimpse of the flowing river, that was theBasilica of St. Peter.
But on this side of the valley floor, where the dead roofs covered the city which, on this evening, Helge certainly felt could be called eternal a lowhillside arched its long back toward the sky, and its ridge carried into the distancea lane of Italian stone pines whose crowns spread out into one above theslender pillars of their trunks. And farthest away, beyond the dome of St.Peter's, where the eye stopped, another slope rose up with light-colored villasamong the pines and cypresses. Surely that must be Monte Mario.
Above his head hung the thick, dark foliage of the holly oaks, and behind himsplashed the jet of the fountain with a peculiarly vivid sound. The water crashedagainst the stone bowl and trickled innocuously into the basin underneath.
Helge whispered aloud to the city of his dreams, whose streets his feet hadnever trod and whose buildings concealed not one familiar soul: "Rome,Rome, eternal Rome." And he grew shy before his own lonely being, andafraid, because he was deeply moved, although he knew that no one was therewatching him. All the same, he turned around and hurried down toward theSpanish Steps.
Now he was standing here on the corner of Via Condotti and the Corso,feeling an oddly sweet anxiety because he was about to cross through the teeminglife of the street and then make his way into the strange city. He would gostraight through, all the way to the Piazza San Pietro.
As he cut across the street two young girls walked past him. Those two areundoubtedly Norwegian, it occurred to him at once, and he found the ideaamusing. One of them was very blond and wore a light-colored fur.
He suddenly felt happy just from reading the street names on the corners ofthe buildings, the white inlaid marble plaques with the clean, Roman letterschiseled into them.
The street he was following ended in an open square near a white bridgethat had two rows of streetlamps burning a sickly greenish yellow against thevast pale light streaming down from the restless heavens. Along the water rana low stone parapet, shining wanly, and a row of trees with withered leaves, thebark of their trunks scaling off in big white flakes. On the opposite side of theriver, gas lamps burned beneath the trees, and the massive buildings stoodblack against the sky; but on this side the evening light still flared in the windowpanes.The sky was almost clear now, a transparent blue-green above theridge with its lane of pines, but a few heaps of heavy cloud banks drifted past,glowing red and yellow, like a portent of storm.
He stopped on the bridge and looked down at the Tiber. How murky thewater was! It gushed in torrents, flame-colored from the sky's reflection; itswept branches and planks and debris along with it, there below in its bed ofpale stone walls. On one side of the bridge a small stairway led down to thewater. Helge thought about how easy it would be to sneak out here one nightif things ever became too unbearable. He wondered if anyone ever did.
In German he asked a constable the way to St. Peter's, and the constablereplied in French and then Italian, but when Helge kept on shaking his head,he went back to speaking French and pointed up the street the way the trafficwas flowing. Helge set off in that direction.
A massive dark wall rose against the sky, a low round tower with notchedbattlements and the coal-black silhouette of an angel on top. He recognized thecontours of the Castel Sant'Angelo. He passed right below it. There was stillenough light in the sky that the statues along the bridge looked yellowish in thedusk, and the Tiber's water still flowed with the reflection of red clouds, butthe gas lamps were gaining in power and cast arcs of light onto the currents.Behind the Ponte Sant'Angelo the electric trolley cars, with lights shining fromtheir windows, raced across a new bridge made of iron. Blue-white sparks flewfrom the insulated wires.
Helge tipped his hat to a man. "San Pietro, favorisca?"
The man pointed and said a great deal that Helge could not understand.
The street he now entered was so narrow and dark that he actually felt athrill of recognition this was the way he had imagined an Italian streetwould look. And there was one antiques shop after another. Helge peeredwith interest into the poorly lit windows. Most of it was probably junk. Thedirty remnants of coarse white lace hanging there on strings: Was that Italianlace? There were bits and pieces of pottery displayed in dusty box lids, small,venomous-green bronze figures, old and new metal candlesticks, and broocheswith clusters of stones that didn't look genuine. Still, he had an absurd urge togo in and buy something inquire, bargain, make a purchase. He ended upinside a cramped little shop, almost before he knew what he was doing. But itwas an amusing place, with all sorts of strange artifacts: old church lamps upnear the ceiling, tattered silk with gold flowers on red and green and whitebackgrounds, rickety furniture.
Behind the counter sat a dark-haired young man, reading. His skin wasgolden, his chin blue with stubble. He chattered his replies as Helge pointed atvarious items and said, "Quanto?" The only thing Helge could understand wasthat everything was shamelessly expensive. Of course he ought to wait to buyanything until he spoke the language and could haggle properly.
Over on a shelf stood a number of porcelain pieces: rococo figurines andvases decorated with molded bouquets of roses. But they looked new. Helgepicked up a little knickknack at random and set it on the counter. "Quanto?"
"Sette," said the man and put out seven fingers.
"Quattro." Helge held up four fingers, wearing his new brown glove. Andhe suddenly felt happy and confident at this leap into a foreign language. Itwas true that he didn't understand a word of the clerk's protests, but eachtime the man stopped talking, he would repeat his "quattro" and hold upfour fingers.
"Non antica!" he added with a flourish.
But the shop clerk insisted: "Antica."
"Quattro," said Helge for the last time. Now the man was holding up onlyfive fingers. When Helge turned toward the door, the man called after him hegave in. Bursting with joy, Helge accepted the knickknack, which had beenwrapped in pink tissue paper.
* * *
At the end of the street he could glimpse the dark dimensions of the churchagainst the sky. He walked fast. And he hurried across the first section of thepiazza, where the shops stood with bright windows and the trolleys raced past.He was headed toward the two semicircular arcades, which seemed to be placinga pair of curved arms around part of the piazza, pulling it into the silenceand darkness, toward the magnificent dark cathedral, which thrust across thesquare its wide stairs, jutting out into a shell-shaped semicircle in the middle.
Black against the dim vault of the sky stood the dome of the church with itsranks of statues: saintly hosts lining the roof of the arcades, with buildings andcrowns of trees irregularly piled up on the slope behind. The gas lamps seemedto have little power here; the dark seeped out through the pillars of the arcades,flooding down the steps from the open portico of the cathedral. Helge walkedall the way up to the church and peered at the closed bronze doors. Then hewent back to the obelisk in the center of the piazza and stood there, staring atthe dark cathedral. He tilted his head back and moved his eyes along the slenderstone spire that pointed straight up into the evening sky, where the lastclouds had settled onto the rooftops in the direction from which he had come,and the first stars were drilling their glittering needles of light through thedarkness, which was growing denser.
And his ears were filled once again with the odd crash of splashing watergushing into a stone basin, and the soft trickling of water overflowing frombowl to bowl, into the basin underneath. He moved close to one of the fountainsand looked up at the thick white jet that was being forced upward infierce defiance, bursting apart high overhead, dark against the clarity of thesky, then falling back in the darkness, where the water gleamed white again.He stared until a little gust of wind seized the fountain's column of spray andbent it toward him. The water no longer slammed against the stone basin; ithissed, and he was showered with icy drops in the cold night.
But he stayed where he was, listening and staring; walked on a bit, stoppeda moment, walked on again but very quietly, trying to hear the whisperinginside him. Now he was here, he was actually here far, far away from everythinghe had been longing so feverishly to leave behind. And he walked evenmore quietly, treading like someone who had escaped from prison.
There was a restaurant on the corner of the street. He headed toward it,found a tobacco shop along the way, and stopped in to buy cigarettes, postcards,and stamps. While he waited for his steak and drank great gulps of redwine, he wrote cards to his parents. To his father: "I'm thinking of you somuch down here tonight," and he smiled sadly yes, it was true, in spite ofeverything. But to his mother he wrote: "I've already bought a little gift foryou the first I've purchased here in Rome." Poor Mother. He wonderedhow she was. He had often been unloving toward her over the past few years.He unwrapped the knickknack it was probably an eau de cologne bottle and looked at it. And he added a few lines about how well he had managedwith the language and how it wasn't very difficult to bargain in the shops.
The food was good but expensive. Well, as soon as he became familiar withthings here, he would no doubt learn how to get by more cheaply. Feeling fulland lively from the wine, he set off in a new direction, glimpsing long, low,dilapidated buildings and high garden walls. He passed through a crumblingarched gate and came to a bridge, which he proceeded to cross. A man in a tollboothstopped him and made Helge understand that he had to hand over asoldo. On the other side stood a large dark church with a dome.
Then he entered a maze of dark, narrow streets. In the secretive dimness hecould make out old palazzos with eaves jutting against the sky and windowswith grates, standing side by side with miserable hovels and small church facadesamong the rows of buildings. There was no sidewalk; he stepped on dubious-lookinggarbage that lay reeking along the curb. Outside the narrow, illuminatedtavern doors and beneath the few gas lamps he caught sight of sinister-lookingpeople.
Helge was half delighted and half frightened as excited as a boy. At thesame time he began to wonder how he was going to get out of this labyrinth,and how he would find his way back to the hotel, far away on the other side ofthe world. He would probably have to splurge on a cab.
He walked down another narrow street, completely deserted. Between thetall buildings, whose walls rose straight up with black window holes carvedinto them but no cornices, rippled a crevice of sky, clear blue and darkly luminous,while below, on the uneven cobblestones, dust and fluttering paper andshreds of straw drifted along in a little gust of wind.
Two women came up behind him and walked past, right near a gas lamp.He gave a start: They were the ones he had noticed on the Corso that afternoon.The ones he thought were Norwegian. He recognized the light-coloredfur the tall girl was wearing.
He had a sudden impulse; he would have himself a little adventure, askthem for directions to see whether they were Norwegian, or Scandinavian, atany rate. With his heart beating a little faster, he proceeded to follow them. Hewas certain they were foreigners.
The two young women stopped along the street in front of a shop that wasclosed. A moment later they continued on. Helge considered whether heshould say "Please" or "Bitte" or "Scusi" or come right out and try"Undskyld" it would be fun if they were Norwegian.
The girls turned the corner. Helge was close behind, gathering his courageto speak to them. Then the shorter one looked over her shoulder and saidsomething in Italian, in a low, furious voice.
Helge was very disappointed. He was just about to say "Scusi"and leave, but then the tall girl said to her friend in Norwegian: "Oh, no, Cesca, don't say anythingto them it's much better to pretend you don't notice."
"But I can't stand these darned Italian louts who won't ever leave a womanalone," she replied.
"I beg your pardon," said Helge, and the girls stopped and turned aroundat once.
"You really must forgive me," Helge stammered and blushed, which annoyedhim, and he blushed even more in the dark. "But I've just arrived fromFlorence today, and now I've gotten completely lost in all these twisting streets.And so I thought you ladies might be Norwegian, or Scandinavian, at any rate I can't manage very well in Italian, and so I thought ... Would you be kindenough to tell me where I might find a trolley? My name is Herr Gram," hesaid and tipped his hat again.
"Where are you staying?" asked the tall girl.
"Well, it's a place called Albergo Torino right near the train station,"Helge explained.
"Then he should take the Trastevere trolley over by San Carlo ai Catinari,"said the short girl.
"No, it's better to take route number one from the new Corso."
"But that one doesn't go to the Termini," replied her friend.
"Yes, it does. The one that says SAN PIETROSTAZIONE TERMINI on it does," sheexplained to Helge.
"That one ... it goes up around Capo le Case and Ludovisi and then keepson going all the way around first. It takes at least an hour to get to the stationon that one!"
"No, no, my dear it goes straight there, right up Via Nazionale."
"No, it doesn't at all," said the short girl, stubbornly. "Besides, first it goesaround to Laterana too."
The tall woman turned to Helge.
"Just take the first street on the right, over to the flea market. Then take aleft at the Cancelleria out to the new Corso. As far as I remember, the trolleystops at the Cancelleria, or right next to it, at any rate. You're bound to see thesign. Then be careful to take the trolley that says SAN PIETROSTAZIONE TERMINI.It's route number one."
Helge stood there a little dejectedly, listening to the two young women tossingthe foreign names back and forth right in front of him. He shook his head."I'm afraid I won't find it, Frøken. I suppose I'd better just keep walking untilI find a cab."
"We'd be happy to go with you to the stop," said the tall girl.
Her friend began whispering crossly in Italian, but the tall girl rebuked her.Helge felt even more dejected by these remarks flying past him, which he didn'tunderstand.
"Thank you, but you really mustn't trouble yourselves; you know, I'm sureI'll find my way back somehow."
"It's no trouble at all," said the tall girl and began walking. "We're goingquite near there ourselves."
"You're much too kind. It certainly is hard to find your way around here inRome, isn't it?" he said, attempting to converse. "At least in the dark."
"Oh, you'll know your way around in no time."
"Well, I just arrived today. I came from Florence this afternoon, on thetrain."
The short girl said something softly in Italian. The tall girl asked Helge, "Isit cold in Florence right now?"
"Yes, freezing cold. It seems quite a bit warmer here in the city, doesn't it?And here I just wrote home to my mother yesterday, asking for my winter coat."
"Oh, it can get quite bitter here too. Did you like Florence? How long wereyou there?"
"Two weeks," said Helge. "I think I'm going to like Rome better."
The other girl laughed. The whole time she had been walking along mutteringin Italian. But the tall girl told him in her calm, warm voice, "Yes, I don'tthink there's any city that you'll like more than Rome."
"Your friend is Italian?" asked Helge.
"Oh no, Frøken Jahrmann is Norwegian. We just speak Italian to each otherso I'll get better at it. She speaks it so well, you see. My name is Winge," sheadded. "Here's the Cancelleria." She pointed to a large dark palazzo.
"Is the courtyard as lovely as they say?"
"Yes, quite lovely. Now let me make sure you find the right trolley."
As they stood and waited, two gentlemen cut across the street.
"Well, look who's here," said one of them.
"Good evening," said the other. "Shall we go up there together? Have youbeen over to look at the corals?"
"It was closed," sulked Frøken Jahrmann.
"We ran into a countryman, and we're helping him find the right trolley,"explained Frøken Winge, and she made the introductions. "Herr Gram thepainter, Heggen, and the sculptor, Ahlin."
"I don't know whether Herr Heggen remembers me ... My name is Gram,we met up at Mysusæter three years ago."
"Oh, that's right, of course. And now you're here in Rome?"
Ahlin and Frøken Jahrmann were whispering to each other. Now theycame over to the other girl.
"Jenny, I'm going home. I don't feel like going to Frascati after all."
"But my dear it was your idea in the first place."
"Oh, no, not Frascati. Ugh. Sit there and mope with two dozen Danishwomen of all ages."
"We could certainly go somewhere else. But here's your trolley, Herr Gram."
"Yes, well, thank you so much for your help. I hope I'll meet you ladiessometime again perhaps at the Scandinavian Club?"
The trolley stopped in front of them. Then Frøken Winge said, "I wonder... maybe you might like to come along with us? We were planning to go outfor a bit this evening drink some wine and hear some music."
"Oh yes ..." Helge stood there a little uncertain and shy, looking around atthe others. "That would be very pleasant, but ..." and he turned trustingly toFrøken Winge with her bright face and kind voice: "All of you know eachother, and ... well, I'm sure it would be more comfortable if you didn't have astranger tagging along," he exclaimed and laughed with embarrassment.
"Oh, my dear man," she said with a smile. "It would be so nice. And look, theregoes your trolley. You already know Heggen from before, and now you know us.And we'll make sure that you get home properly. So if you're not tired ..."
"Tired? Oh no! I would love to join you," said Helge eagerly, with relief.
The three others had begun to suggest taverns. Helge didn't know any ofthem by name; none of them was among those his father had talked about.Frøken Jahrmann rejected them all.
"All right then we'll go down to Sant'Agostino. You know, the placewith the red wine, Gunnar." Jenny Winge started off at once; Heggen followed.
"They don't have music," objected Frøken Jahrmann.
"Yes, they do the man who squints and that other man are there almostevery evening. Let's not stand here talking nonsense."
Helge followed behind with Frøken Jahrmann and the Swedish sculptor.
"Have you been in Rome long, Herr Gram?" asked Ahlin.
"No, I came from Florence this afternoon."
Frøken Jahrmann gave a little laugh. Helge felt sheepish. He walked alongthinking that perhaps he ought to say he was tired after all, and leave. As theycontinued on through the dark, narrow streets, Frøken Jahrmann kept talkingto the Swedish sculptor and barely responded whenever he tried to speak toher. But before he had made up his mind, he saw the other couple disappearthrough a narrow doorway down the street.