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Authors: Louis Couperus

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Inevitable

BOOK: Inevitable
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LOUIS COUPERUS

INEVITABLE

Translated from the Dutch by
Paul Vincent

T
HE MARCHESA BELLONI’S
pensione
was situated in one of Rome’s most salubrious, if not most poetic, quarters: half the house formed part of a villa from the ancient Ludovisi gardens, those beautiful old gardens lamented by everyone who knew them before the apartment blocks had risen where the exclusive Roman residential area had once extended. The
pensione
was in Via Lombardia; the old villa section had retained a certain antique charm for the
marchesa
’s guests, and the newly built extension offered spacious rooms, running water and electric light. The
pensione
had something of a reputation for being good, cheap and pleasantly appointed; a few minutes’ walk from the Pincio, and high up so that one need have no fear of malaria, and the price one paid for an extended stay, which was just over eight lire, was exceptional for Rome, well known for being more expensive than any other Italian city. Consequently the
pensione
was usually full: travellers arrived as early as October—those who arrived earliest in the season paid least; and apart from a few tourists in a hurry most of them stayed on till Easter, before making their way down to Naples after the great church festivals.

The
pensione
had been warmly recommended by English fellow-travellers to Cornélie de Retz van Loo, who was travelling alone through Italy and had written to the Marchesa Belloni from Florence. It was the first time she
had travelled in Italy; it was the first time she had alighted at the great, cavernous Termini station close to the baths of Diocletian, and in the square, in the golden Roman sunshine, while the great Acqua Marcia fountain babbled and the coachmen cracked their whips and clicked their tongues (to catch her attention), she had her “precious Italian sensation” as she had imagined, and was glad to be in Rome.

She saw a little old man with ‘Hôtel Belloni’ written on his cap limping towards her, with the instinct of a veteran porter who immediately recognises his travellers, and she signalled to him with a smile. He greeted her like a
long-lost
friend, at once familiar and respectful, as if pleased to see her, asked whether she had had a pleasant journey, whether she was tired, accompanied her to the victoria, adjusted her travel-rug and her valise, asked for the ticket for her cases, and said that she should go on ahead: he would follow in ten minutes with the luggage. She found it fun, being looked after by the old fellow with the limp and gave him a friendly nod as the coachman drove off. She felt light and airy, with just a tinge of melancholy at the unknown things that were to happen to her, and looked left and right, taking in the streets of Rome: she saw nothing but houses and houses, apartment blocks; then a great white palace: the new Palazzo Piombino—where she knew the Ludovisi
Juno
was—and then the coachman pulled up, and a bell boy came up to her. He took her to the lounge, a dark room with a table in the centre covered in magazines, arranged in a neat, still unread circle; two ladies, obviously English, and of the aesthetic sort—grubby hair, loose blouses—were sitting in a corner studying their Baedekers before going out. Cornélie nodded briefly, but received
no acknowledgement; she did not take it amiss, being familiar with the ways of English travellers. She sat down at the table and picked up the
Roman Herald,
the paper that appears fortnightly and gives information about everything there is to do in Rome, and at that point one of the ladies addressed her aggressively from a corner,

“I’m sorry, but you will be sure not to take the
Herald
to your room, won’t you?”

Cornélie turned her head loftily and languidly towards the corner where the ladies were sitting, looked vaguely past their grubby heads, said nothing and looked back at the
Herald
, found herself a seasoned traveller and smiled inwardly, because she knew how to behave with this kind of English lady.

The
marchesa
came in and welcomed Cornélie in Italian and in French. She was a fairly plump matron, in a vulgar way; her ample bosom was contained in a silk cuirasse or spencer that shone at the seams and was bursting under the arms: her grey coiffure gave her a lion-like appearance; the large eyes, lined with yellow and blue, were opened unnaturally wide by belladonna; in her ears huge crystals created a rainbow effect, and bands of nameless precious stones girded her podgy fingers. She spoke very fast, and Cornélie found her phrases as pleasantly homely as the welcome of the crippled porter on the station square. She allowed the
marchesa
to escort her to the lift, and got in with her: the hydraulic lift, a barred cage that ascended past the staircase, climbed at a stately pace and came to a sudden halt between the second and third floors.

“Third floor!” the
marchesa
called down.


Non c’é acqua!
” the bellboy called back calmly, meaning—as seemed quite natural—that there was insufficient water to start the lift moving.

The
marchesa
barked a number of orders; two
facchini
appeared, hoisted themselves up with the bustling bellboy on the cable of the lift, and in fits and starts the cage rose higher and higher till it finally, almost, reached the third floor.

“A little higher!” ordered the
marchesa
.

But flex their muscles as the
facchini
might, the lift would not budge.

“We can still get out!” said the
marchesa
. “Wait a moment.”

With a long stride, baring her huge white calf, she stepped onto the floor, smiled and extended her hand to Cornélie, who copied her gymnastics.

“We’re here!” sighed the
marchesa
with a satisfied smile. “This is your room.”

She opened a door and showed Cornélie a room. Although it was bright and sunny outside, the room was as dank as a cellar.


Marchesa
,” said Cornélie at once, “I wrote to you that I wanted two rooms facing south.”

“Really?” asked the
marchesa
in a naïve, innocent tone. “I really couldn’t remember. Yes, foreigners are always so set on south-facing rooms … I can assure you this is a lovely room.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t take it,
marchesa
.”

‘La Belloni’ grumbled a little, then went down the corridor and opened another room.

“What about this room,
signora
… What do you think of this …?”

“Is it south-facing?”

“Almost.”

“I must have due south.”

“This faces west: you’ll see the most wonderful sunsets from your window.”

“I absolutely must have a south-facing room,
marchesa
.”

“I have some most charming east-facing rooms: the most beautiful sunrises.”

“No,
marchesa
…”

“Have you no feeling for natural beauty?”

“A little, but I’m a lot more concerned about my health.”

“I sleep in a north-facing room myself.”

“You’re Italian and you’re used to it,
marchesa
.”

“I’m very sorry, but I have no south-facing rooms.”

“Then I’m sorry too,
marchesa
, but in that case I shall have to look elsewhere.”

Cornélie turned away, as if to go. The choice of a room can be the choice of a lifetime …

The
marchesa
took her hand and smiled. She abandoned her cool tone and her voice was soothing as balm.


Davvero
, foreigners are so set on south-facing rooms! I still have two cubby-holes. Here …”

And she quickly opened two doors: two small, cosy, sunny long and narrow rooms, and from the open windows a lofty, wide panorama over the streets and roofs below and in the distance the blue dome of St Peter’s.

“These are my last south-facing rooms,” lamented the marchesa.

“I’ll take them,
marchesa
…”

“Sixteen lire,” smiled ‘la Belloni’.

“Ten, as you wrote.”

“I could put two people up in these.”

“I’ll be staying—if it’s to my liking—the whole winter.”

“You’re a brave one!” the
marchesa
suddenly exclaimed in her most charming voice, the voice of defeat. “You can have the rooms for twelve lire. No more discussions. The rooms are yours. You’re Dutch, aren’t you? We have another Dutch family; a mama with two daughters and a son. Would you like to sit next to them at table?”

“No, I’d prefer it if you would seat me somewhere else; I don’t like my compatriots when they’re travelling …”

The
marchesa
left Cornélie alone. She looked out of the window, her mind empty of thoughts, happy to be in Rome, with a touch of melancholy at the unknown things that were about to happen to her. There was a knock at the door and her suitcases were brought in. She saw that it was eleven o’clock and started unpacking. One of her rooms was a small sitting room, like a birdcage in the air, looking out over Rome. She rearranged the furniture herself, draped the faded chaise-longue with a length of cloth from the Abruzzi and with drawing pins fixed a number of portraits to the distempered wall which was broken up by crude fresco arabesques. And she smiled at the border of purple hearts pierced by arrows that surrounded the frescoed section of the wall.

An hour’s work and her sitting-room was organised: a home of her own with a few of her own bits of material, a cover so, a side table so: cushions on the chaise-longue, books to hand. When she had finished and sat down, she suddenly felt very lonely. She thought of The Hague, of what she was leaving behind. But she did not want to think, picked up her Baedeker and read about the Vatican. She
could not concentrate and turned to Hare’s
Walks through Rome.
A bell rang. She was tired, felt nervous, looked in the mirror, saw her hair that had lost its curl, her blouse smudged with coal and dust, unlocked a second suitcase and changed. As she did her hair she cried, sobbed. The second bell rang and after powdering her face she went downstairs.

She thought she was late but there was no one in the dining-room and she had to wait to be served. She resolved not to come so promptly in future. Some lodgers looked in through the open door, saw that no one was at table yet except for a new lady and disappeared again.

Cornélie looked around and waited.

The dining-room was the antique banqueting room of the old villa section with a ceiling by Guercino. The waiters were just strolling about. An old grey-haired head waiter surveyed the table from afar to make sure everything was in order. He became impatient when no one came and gave orders for Cornélie to be served with the macaroni. Cornélie noticed that, like the porter, he was lame in one leg. But the waiters were very young, scarcely sixteen or eighteen, and lacked the usual waiterly aplomb.

A fat gentleman, lively, self-important, pock-marked, badly shaven, in a threadbare black jacket without much linen on show, came in, rubbed his hands, and sat down opposite Cornélie.

He greeted her politely and also had some macaroni.

And it seemed to be a sign that it was time to eat, because numerous guests, mostly ladies, now entered, sat down and had portions of the macaroni being served by the young waiters under the supervision of the grey-haired
head waiter. Cornélie smiled at the amusing manners of these travelling types and when she looked involuntarily at the pock-marked gentleman opposite, she noticed that he was smiling too.

He hurriedly ate a little more bread with tomato sauce, leant a little further across the table and in a near-whisper said in French:

“Amusing, isn’t it?”

Cornélie raised her eyebrows.

“How do you mean?”

“A cosmopolitan company …”

“Oh, yes …”

“Are you Dutch?”

“How do you know?”

“I saw your name in the register, and it said The Hague after it …”

“That’s true …”

“There are some other Dutch ladies here, they’re over there … they’re charming.”

Cornélie ordered a cheap wine from the head waiter.

“That wine is no good,” said the lively gentleman, in an animated tone. “I’m having Genzano,” he said, pointing to his carafe. “I pay a small corkage and drink my own wine.”

The head waiter brought Cornélie her half bottle: it was included with her board.

“If you like, I can give you the address for my wine: Via della Croce 61 …”

Cornélie thanked him. The unusual ease and vivacity of the pock-marked gentleman amused her.

“You’re looking at the head waiter?” he asked.

“You’re very observant,” she smiled.

“Quite a character, our head waiter, Giuseppe. He used to be head waiter at the palace of an Austrian archduke. He did something, I don’t know what. Stole perhaps. Or was impertinent. Or dropped a spoon. He came down in the world. Now he’s in our humble Pensione Belloni. But what dignity …”

He leant forward.

“The
marchesa
is thrifty. All the staff here are either old or very young. Less in wages.”

He bowed to two German ladies, mother and daughter, who had come in and sat down next to him.

“I’ve got the permit I promised you, to see the Palazzo Rospigliosi, Guido Reni’s
Aurora
,” he said in German.

“Is the prince back then?”

“No, the prince is in Paris. The palace is closed, except to you.”

He bowed gallantly.

The German ladies exclaimed that he was so sweet, that he could do everything, find a solution to every problem. The trouble they had gone to bribe the concierge of Rospigliosi! With no success.

A thin English lady had sat down next to Cornélie.

“And for you, Miss Taylor, I have a ticket for an early mass in his Holiness’s own chapel …”

Miss Taylor beamed with joy.

“Have you been sightseeing again?” the pock-marked gentleman continued.

“Yes, the Kircher Museum,” said Miss Taylor. “But now I’m exhausted … It was most exquisite.”

“I’m prescribing you an afternoon at home, Miss Taylor, and some rest.”

“I’ve arranged to see the Aventine …”

“You mustn’t go. You’re tired. You’re looking worse every day and getting thinner. Rome is too tiring for you. You must rest, otherwise I shan’t give you the ticket for morning mass.”

BOOK: Inevitable
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