"May 19, 1952. I saw Martin Leire for the last time in November, 1943," Steingrim had written. "It was on Kungsgatan, fog and rain, one of those hopeless late-autumn days in a Scandinavian city when everything seems to conspire to rob one of happiness. It was between five and six, the shop-window glitter reflected on the wet street, the lights cut into the fog like a sickness.
"As I passed the entrance of a hotel, a taxi eased to a stop; its door opened and Martin's death-pale face appeared. In his company was a very young girl, as pale as he, and both quite drunk, their eyes glassy, their mouths half open. He recognized me in spite of his deep drunkenness and seemed embarrassed at the meeting. The girl too climbed out of the taxi and swayed on the sidewalk. A rather indifferent pickup with a face that must have looked stupid even under more favorable circumstances. With great difficulty Martin managed to pay the driver and turned to me, his legs wobbly, his matted hair falling down under the hat which was on backwards. He was fighting his inebriation and mumbled something about having arrived that day and would leave from Bromma in the evening. That could only mean he was headed for London. He had stayed in Skåne for some time but had never written, not even now when he would move on. It had annoyed me a bit even though we had seen little of each other for a long time. After some scandal in Malmö he had gone underground, and it surprised me they wanted him in London. On the other hand, he had had good connections, at least before the scandal; these people ought to have helped him, if for no other reason than to get him out of the way for their own comfort. Or, he might have received his orders, to be deported, as we called it. I knew of several such cases. It was one expediency to keep Swedish authorities from interfering.
"Our meeting was infinitely painful. His feeling of shame broke through his half-conscious face, his unsteady legs, his futile attempts at a few casual words to an old friend, his apologies, explanations—nothing could hide his intoxicated condition. He stared helplessly at me, at the girl, at the doorman. I said something inconsequential and hurried on. At Stureplan rain began to fall in earnest, and I went in and sat down at Sturehof. It turned out to be the worst evening I ever spent during my Stockholm period. My old friend, the inclement weather, bad news from all quarters—all together hit me on a day when I was already down and [p. 191] more lonely than usual. Toward midnight when I had returned to the closet where I lived, I broke down and cried. The following day I went to Sturehof again, for my breakfast. They had a large variety of newspapers there, and I intended to read for an hour to gain my equilibrium after such a depressing night. And then the headlines cried out to me that a plane had crashed. The time, the place, and the fact that no names were mentioned told me that Martin was gone. I called several places before I got hold of someone who knew me and was willing to talk; Martin had been on the plane, he had been killed.
"Nothing from all my war years has stayed with me in so gray and hopeless a light as those happenings. The deciding factor is always how deeply one is personally involved in a happening. I was already through with Martin Leire, in the sense that I would never have looked him up again; in another sense I know I will never be through with him. I got to know him in my loneliness when we both were young. I was drawn to him again and again, but loneliness alone is no good foundation for friendship. He killed something of the best within me, or at least was to blame for its non-development. Blame and blame—it was I who constantly sought out him, this big, strong, shallow person with whom I had nothing in common, no, not with that Martin Leire and his vulgar talk. So bitter can it be to be alone that I time and again returned from visits with my best friend, feeling like vomiting. He was from the first to the last day a stranger to me. It was I who was his audience when he came dragging home with each new and charming seventeen-year-old girl—even when he was over forty—and whispered to me aside God knows how many times, that he would never sink as deep as Erling Vik, myself, and some others, who were satisfied with old women of twenty-five or over.
"The young girls still liked him, even with his thinning hair and vapid eyes.
"I wrote I was through with him and would never have looked him up again, had he lived, and I believe it is the truth, for when I was with him after the Germans had come he bored me to tears. Yet, one never knows. I have long ago confessed to myself it was a relief to know he was thoroughly dead, but it bothers me in some way that he took the plane quite drunk, after his last drunken bed-play with his last and equally drunk seventeen-year-old. It all seems, even to me who always considers cause and effect, almost too horribly pat.
"While I was sitting at Sturehof, looking at newspapers I couldn't read, Birgit Orrestad and her little daughter came in to eat. The girl's name was Adda. Birgit had obtained a job at the legation and was well [p. 192] liked there. She was seldom seen out, she was a conscientious mother and didn't care for liquor like the rest of us. There were some of that kind. They created a certain notice by leading a quiet, sober life. I have observed that moderation in all types of enjoyment, without an urge to convert others, is quite common in women of a definitely warm and charming nature. They are moderate on all fronts of life. They can listen and talk little. They accept the foulest story without a blink but would never repeat it. They take little interest in morals but act as if they had some. If they finally have an adventure you can be sure they go through the doors soundlessly. One confesses one's sins to them and they don't use their knowledge. They themselves never confess.
"Birgit Orrestad and her daughter we used to call 'Birgit and Adda the Etruscans.' Who had given them that name I never learned, but it suited them remarkably well. Birgit had the same long, curious neck as a deer when it lifts its head and spies about, but she also resembled the sea serpent one sees on old prints, raising its head above the surface, taking in the situation. She had also a touch of women-figures one sees on sarcophagi-lids at Palmyra. Yet mostly a young giraffe. Birgit was of a very fair complexion, she never used powder or lipstick and she dressed rather indifferently. Her eyes were almond-shaped and contemplative. She reminded one of a boy. She seldom said anything without being asked, and one could never be sure of a reply. Everybody was a little uncertain about her. Was she beautiful? Yes, she was. She must have been about thirty. No one knew who was the father of her daughter. A few had asked, but she had only looked pondering at the questioner and said nothing. One woman had taken the chance when alone with the girl and asked her, 'What is your father's name?' and the girl had looked seriously at her and said, 'He has changed his name.' The woman was forced to smile, a little embarrassed at the child's guarded look, the exact miniature of the mother. Indeed, she was so much a copy of her mother that the possibilities of a virginal birth might be considered; the same jerky motion of her head on the long neck, like a camera being focused. People became somewhat confused sitting at the same table with mother and daughter. The Etruscan Birgit seldom talked to anyone except her precocious daughter, the Etruscan Adda. Their eyes stayed open. Is it possible that I have never seen either one of them blink? One nearly always thought of some animal when looking at Birgit Orrestad, the Etruscan. A young mare. A dragonfly glittering in the sun.
"It was good to encounter the two; it was some time after I had left Felicia, who could be so trying in her eternal attempts to help.
"Someone had it from Oslo that Birgit had not been married. The [p. 193] name of Adda's father as I said had never been mentioned. It shouldn't have been too difficult to find out but no one had bothered, it seemed.
"I went out and bought something for Adda and sat down with them for a couple of hours. The vapors in my head had eased a little when I went home and started to read. I liked Birgit and would have shacked up with her, but I guess that's not for me any more. It gets so complicated. Those things called passion, sexual excitement and the like are foreign to me. I am like St. Paul. But I perform what is expected from me; it is as exciting as holding hands. I can do it as often as they want and I never tell them it bores me—Yes, it is difficult. I prefer female company to male, and I almost wish it weren't so. For I have some kind of shortcoming that causes me to be mistaken about women catastrophically."
Catastrophically? thought Erling. That was a strong word for Steingrim to use.
The sun was streaming down on the table where Erling was sitting with the diary. A reflection glittered in the glass of whisky he had poured himself, against his custom so early in the day—perhaps an antidote for the many gray days in Stockholm so long ago.
So that was how Martin Leire had seemed in the eyes of his friend, he who never had mentioned him after the war. Not a single word. It made Erling reflect that Steingrim never had used a belittling word about a woman, not even about Viktoria to whom he still was married then, while she told every new acquaintance how terribly Steingrim had degraded her by talking about her behind her back. This he had never done. He had mentioned her only seldom, and only in passing, neither kindly nor unkindly.
He recalled how she had tried to get him, Erling, involved in a slander-campaign she had just started against Steingrim, based as usual on her statement that he had ruined her reputation. Erling's stony silence had at last stopped her and she had not come to him again. But it did not deter her to find that none of Steingrim's friends were willing to listen to her. It was a sort of mania with her, and she attached herself to the most unsavory characters to orate about Steingrim's shortcomings. She understood—as far as she was able to understand anything—that she had been accepted as Steingrim's wife but did not understand she must be decent if she still wanted them as friends. From pure habit she continued her persecution of Steingrim among other people who only were familiar with the name Steingrim Hagen and perhaps felt honored that his wife was willing to air the family closets with them. Erling had heard more than one report of how she carried on, unable to stop once she got started, until the listeners were struck dumb with such nervous chatter, [p. 194] not particularly interested in her but undoubtedly curious about what went on in Steingrim's bed. This they were informed about—while Viktoria talked and talked, until the silence of the listeners grew too intense for her to endure; when she would leave, ashamed and revengeful, perhaps feeling that it might be rather herself than Steingrim she had thrown to the dogs.
The silence Steingrim had let fall over Martin Leire must be rooted in a shame he felt both for himself and for his friend. This seemed apparent from what Erling just had read. Similarly perhaps Steingrim's silence about women had the same cause. "For I have some kind of shortcoming that causes me to be mistaken about women catastrophically."
How strange to persecute a man precisely for something he never has done! The usual procedure is to find a feather, which is turned into a hen. But here wasn't the smallest piece of down. There could be no explanation except that Viktoria had inverted the situation: she could not endure the silence about herself, since Steingrim refused to talk about her day and night, and thus her slander was also an expression of a dream-fulfillment. Unless in her unholy simplicity she was unable to individualize and had never seen her husband other than as one among many, a faceless fool; and took it for granted that he went out of his way to blacken her name.
However, she was dangerous in her way. She represented "the revolt of stupidity," and Erling had never underestimated her evil nature. When Steingrim committed suicide and causes were investigated, Erling had not been the only one to remember Viktoria.
Now he was recalling the time before the war, his acquaintance with Martin and Steingrim, the latter becoming his friend after the war. Both were dead now, neither one reaching forty-five. So many had died, remarkably many when he actually figured their number, while he himself still enjoyed life on earth, had his health, and was what is called, with all its modifications, happy. That he wouldn't wish to change places with any one of the dead was understandable, neither would he wish to change with any one of the living. Of course, his life had turned autumnal in a way, many yellow leaves had fallen, but the sun could still dance, and his lack of youth was a matter of computation rather than something he felt overwhelmed by.
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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