North From RomeHelen Macinnes
NORTH FROM ROME
ALSO BY HELEN MacINNES
AND AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS
Pray for a Brave Heart
Assignment in Brittany
Decision at Delphi (September 2012)
The Venetian Affair (October 2012)
The Salzburg Connection (November 2012)
North From Rome
Print edition ISBN: 9781781163269
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781164372
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: June 2012 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
© 1958, 2012 by the Estate of Helen MacInnes. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group Ltd.
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About The Author
At last, the city was quiet.
Quiet enough for sleep, William Lammiter thought as he finished his cigarette on the small balcony outside of his hotel bedroom. It was three o’clock in the morning—no, almost half-past three by his watch—and Rome was at peace. Practically. Only an occasional car now passed through the old Roman wall by the broad Pincian Gate, only a solitary Vespa roared its way up the wide sweep of the Via Vittorio Veneto. The café-table sitters, the coffee-drinkers and Cinzano-sippers had gone back to their rooms, leaving the broad sidewalks free at last. And, on the other side of the Roman wall, over the vast stretch of the Borghese Gardens, with its tall pine trees, pleasant pavilions, careful flower beds, sweet-smelling shrubs, there was now a cloak of darkness, darkness and silence, for even the night club which lay incongruously just within this entrance to the Borghese Gardens had stopped blowing its trumpets and banging its drums in steady four beats to the bar.
Time for sleep, Lammiter told himself again, but he still stayed on the balcony, a little narrow ledge of balustraded stone jutting over a street of parked cars, with a clear view over the Roman wall into the Borghese Gardens. He still watched the tall pines, with their straight trunks and massive crowns silhouetted against the city’s night sky. They seemed as grateful for this hour of rest as he was. They sighed gently, as if they felt the same cool breath of air that had touched his cheek.
He ignored the group of young men who were walking smartly home, the two white-uniformed policemen who were pacing slowly from the Via Veneto through the Pincian Gate, the woman clacking lightly along on high heels in the darkened street below his balcony. He wanted to concentrate on the pine trees, on the feeling that this had once been the limits of ancient Rome, that wild and unknown country had once stretched outside there, northward, away from the old city. Then, that red brick wall, built to keep the barbarians out, had been manned by troops; and at a gateway such as this one, there would be soldiers on guard duty. On a warm summer evening in late July, such as this, nearly seventeen hundred years ago, a sentry must have stared northward, into the darkness, and wondered what lurked out there.
What was it like, Bill Lammiter wondered, to have been a Roman sentry standing guard duty at the Pincian Gate? Would the soldier, looking northward from his post on top of the high wall—there was a path there, broad enough for two men to march abreast—have felt loneliness, fear? Would he have stared out at the vast night, and felt a premonition stir uneasily in his mind? Or was he just bored, waiting for his relief to come marching along with the squad leader, hoping no trouble would break out tonight or, any other night before he got out of the service and began farming that strip of land up near Perugia? Perugia in the Umbrian hills... That’s where I ought to be right now, Lammiter thought. There’s nothing to keep me in Rome any longer. I’ve been here a month. I haven’t done a stroke of work. And I’ve lost my girl.
He stubbed out his cigarette angrily, straightened his shoulders, and turned to go indoors. From the now quiet street, beneath his balcony, he heard a woman’s cry.
It was quick, startled, strangled into silence. He leaned over the stone balustrade. Under the shadows of the Aurelian Wall were spaced trees and streetlights, a line of parked cars and two huge empty tourist buses. For a moment, that was all he saw, patches of bright light, patches of deep shadow, the small neat cars sheltering under thick tents of green leaves. Then, by one car, already pointing its nose out from the kerb, ready to leave, waiting with its door open, he saw a woman and a man. They were standing rigid, it seemed, and then he realised it was the rigidity of force and resistance equally matched. The woman—a girl it was—drew back with desperate strength. The man, one hand on her wrist, another clamped over her mouth, was trying to draw her into the car.
Lammiter let out a yell, a loud call for help partly blotted out by the unmuffled roar of a solitary motor scooter, its rider oblivious of everything except the fine angle he cut as he swept through the Pincian Gate from the Borghese Gardens to curve down the Via Vittorio Veneto. But the two police officers, now pacing together so quietly on the other side of the wall, had stopped their earnest conversation and were looking searchingly in his direction. In a quick moment, Lammiter waved, shouted, pointed beneath him. “Here!—on this side!” He wondered if his English were understood, tried to think of the word for “Help!” in Italian, looked down once more at the startled man (who had heard the yell, all right), and shouted again. The girl broke loose as the man stared up at the balcony. She began to run, towards the brighter lights of the Pincian Gate.
Lammiter turned from the balcony and raced through his room into the red-carpeted hall. Behind him he left half-querulous, half-asleep voices, matching the dusty shoes standing outside their doors. He didn’t wait for the elevator, a stately and shaky descent in a gilded cage, but ran down the three flights of steps that encircled its open shaft. He sprinted across the dimly-lit hall, half-sliding on the marble floor, giving the night porter scarcely time to look up from his desk, and was out on the wide sidewalk. He was breathless but pleased with himself. Not bad, not bad at all for a man of almost thirty, he decided. (Sin
ce his twenty-ninth birthday, he had become conscious of age.) He couldn’t have taken more than two minutes to reach the street. Then he was amused by himself for being so pleased. He slackened his pace abruptly, and felt a stitch in his side just to keep him in his proper place. Ahead of him, in front of the Pincian Gate, the running girl had been stopped by the two policemen. The car, and the man with it, had vanished.
The policemen looked at him speculatively. For a moment he had the impulse to walk on, to pretend he was out for an early-morning stroll. Now that the girl was safe, there was no need to get mixed up in any complication. But he had been running, he was still breathing faster than normal with that proud burst of speed, and he was dressed exactly in the clothes he had worn on the balcony—a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, tie off, neck open, thin gabardine trousers. He glanced over his shoulder, to see how clearly the balcony was visible from the street. It had been extremely visible. He wasn’t surprised when the grave-faced policeman identified him.
They were puzzled. The girl, even after she had regained her breath, was too frightened to speak sensibly. So now they turned on the stranger from the balcony.
An American, obviously. One could always tell most Americans; they had a young look to their faces, a peculiar expression of trust, a confidence in their eyes, a strange mixture of diffidence and decision in their movements. This one was no exception. They had to look up at him as they asked him their polite but puzzled questions, for he was tall, and thinner than they considered appropriate. (Strange that an American with money—his clothes were well-cut, his wristwatch expensive, he stayed at a good conservative hotel—should spend so little on food. But no stranger than the fact that he wore no tie, no jacket, and stood nonchalantly on the street, in this fashionable quarter of the city, without even being aware of how he was dressed.) His face was lean, strong-boned, with a good forehead and well-shaped chin and nose. His mouth was pleasant when he smiled. His teeth were excellent. Grey eyes under well-marked eyebrows, with a tendency to frown in concentration. His hair was brown, and—another peculiar American custom—cut short. His voice was agreeable to listen to, but his words were difficult to follow. A polite man, the policemen decided, for he was now trying to answer them in Italian. His words were still difficult to follow: his Italian was too careful, there was no natural flow to it. And he kept looking at the girl.
Why not? She might be stupid, or shy, or both, but she was extremely pretty, with shining black hair cut short, large dark eyes, an excellent figure, slender ankles, small feet in pointed-toe shoes with high Italian heels. “Thank you,” she said huskily in English to the American.
“Excuse me, signore,” one of the policemen said brusquely but tactfully, as he turned to the American. “You are staying at the Hotel Pinciana?”
“Yes. My name is Lammiter, William Lammiter.” He added that he was an American, but no one seemed surprised. And then as he tried to explain what he had seen from the balcony of his room, first in Italian, then in French, and then—defeated— in English, the two policemen tried to help him.
“No, no!” he had to insist. “The car wasn’t passing by. It had been parked under my balcony. Over there! See? It must have been waiting. When I noticed it, it had its engine running, its nose pointing out, ready to leave. So there must have been two men, one driving, one trying to snatch the girl. No, I don’t think there could have been three men. Why?—Well, there would have been two men on the sidewalk, one keeping her from screaming, one pulling her into the car. But why don’t you ask her, herself?”
He turned to the girl standing back so quietly in the shadow of the wall. It was time she did a little explaining.
But she wasn’t there.
The two policemen had turned, too. They stared at him. Then quickly, they all moved through the broad archway of the Pincian Gate to the other side of the Roman wall. There she was, running across the wide empty street towards the entrance of the Borghese Gardens. And stopping near her, braking suddenly beside one of the islands formed by the circular wall guarding the roots of a giant pine tree, was a grey Fiat.
Lammiter had just time to say, “No, that isn’t the same car. The other was smaller.” Its door opened, the girl jumped in, and it streaked down the tree-shaded road that led through the gardens to the outskirts of Rome. The policemen looked at each other, and then at the American. One of them said a couple of lines in Italian, quick, low, tense. The other laughed and shrugged his shoulders. He said, “The price must have suited her that time.”
“But—” Lammiter said, and then he, too, shrugged his shoulders and raised an eyebrow in his best Italian accent. There was really nothing else to do.
Briskly, the two policemen saluted him. They were no longer annoyed by the girl, but amused by him. It had become merely a slightly comic interlude to break the monotony of their night patrol. Now, hands clasped behind their backs, they began walking in step and grave talk of more serious matters, along the Aurelian Wall.
Lammiter went back to the hotel. The night porter in front of his honeycomb of keys looked at him without much curiosity— Americans were a nation of eccentrics, he had decided years ago, and nothing they did surprised any hotel desk. The elevator wasn’t working, anyway, so Lammiter climbed the three flights to his corridor. The shoes formed a jeering honour guard, right to his room. The voices had subsided into measured breathing and choking snores.
He went out onto the balcony. Beyond the Roman wall, the pine trees in the Borghese Gardens waited quietly for the dawn. And there it was, the first pale streak of grey, washing along the east rim of distant hills. A house swallow sounded its unmusical notes. Soon, others would form a vague chorus: they would start skimming over the mushroom-shaped, trees, filling the air with the sound of their twittering and the swoop of their wings. And soon, too, the automobiles and the motor bicycles and the scooters and the horns and the unmuffled exhausts and the screeching brakes...
He closed both the shutters, the windows, the heavy velvet curtains. Perhaps that would give him a chance to sleep. But long after he had had a quick shower and lay stretched on top of the heavy linen bedspread, he kept thinking of the girl who had said “Thank you” as if she had meant it. Eventually, to save himself from suffocation, he rose and opened all the layers of protection that covered his windows. The pale grey edge on the horizon had spread and changed to a fringe of green and gold. Above the renewed traffic, the swallows, in hundreds, were diving and soaring with their loud screams of frenzied delight.
“Idiots!” he told them angrily. And yet he had to smile. Bad-tempered as he was with lack of sleep and a surfeit of noise, the swallows were a comic mixture of graceful flight and ugly sound. “See, see, see!” they screeched in their thin scratched notes as they skimmed the tall pine trees, the old Roman wall, the hotel roof. “I’ll leave Rome today,” he told himself wearily. “I’ll go up to an Umbrian hill town, and catch myself some quiet and some coolness.” He had been saying that for, two weeks, but now he knew he meant it. And either the pleasantness of the idea or his rediscovered powers of decision lulled him into sleep. Daylight or swallows or traffic or not, he didn’t awaken until nine.
Early, while it was still cool, he began to pack. He was travelling light: one two-suiter case and one grip besides his typewriter and camera. Yet, foot-free as he was, it was odd how he seemed to have taken root in this hotel room—every small drawer and corner turned up another belonging, or something he had bought since he arrived four weeks ago. He was trying to fit some typing paper into the typewriter’s neat case when the room waiter arrived to clear away the breakfast. It was the one Lammiter liked least, the small thin man, middle-aged, morose, who was never interested in anything except the size of the tip lying on the tray. But this morning he suddenly turned almost vivacious as he looked at the luggage. “The signore is leaving today?” The dull eyes were extremely clever, Lammiter noticed with some surprise.
“Yes,” Lammiter said, and went on pac
“The signore is a writer?”
Lammiter nodded. If you could call a man a writer who had written exactly one play. True, it had been successful enough, and that was something both unexpected and pleasant. But if he didn’t write a second one pretty soon, and have another success, too, he would have to go back to Madison Avenue and advertising. In the last ten days or so, he had begun to wonder if he had resigned too rapidly from the steady job, the steady money, the rent and the butcher’s bill and the dry Martinis all definitely paid for.
“The signore likes Rome?”
“The signore stayed a long time here. He has many friends in Rome?”
“The signore,” Lammiter said firmly, “has no friends in Rome, at all.” That was accurate enough. Eleanor Halley was in Rome, but after their last disagreement two weeks ago— Disagreement? Let’s face it, he told himself: Eleanor and you have had your ultimate quarrel.
What had she called him? A man too jealous to be able to accept with any kind of grace the fact that she had decided to marry someone else. A man too narrow-minded to approve of her marrying a foreigner. A man too much of a snob-in-reverse (it had taken him a few seconds to puzzle that phrase out) to like anyone who had a title. “Look,” he had told her, “I don’t care whether this new fellow of yours has a title or not. I don’t hate him because he calls himself a count. I just want to know more about him.” But this phrase (calculated, he had to admit now)—“this new fellow of yours”—had had a most final effect. Afterwards, he had phoned Eleanor twice at the Embassy, twice at the apartment she shared with two other women secretaries. Miss Halley was not at her desk. Miss Halley was not at home. And three days ago he had loitered round the Embassy entrance, hoping to have a few minutes’ talk with her. But either she had left early or she had seen him and taken another exit.
Now he would never be given the chance to make the apology he ought to have offered in the first place, instead of letting his hurt pride sharpen his tongue. He ought to have said, “You were right. I was letting the theatre swallow me up, I was turning into the re-write machine, the rehearsal haunter, the director’s little helper, the willing autograph-signer, the luncheon speaker, the man who wanted to prove success hadn’t gone, to his head; the man who couldn’t say ‘no’, trying to oblige everybody, failing the only person who really mattered.” For a moment he was startled by the picture he had drawn of himself. Was it just his eloquence, or had he been as neglectful of Eleanor as all that?