Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

North From Rome, Page 2

Helen Macinnes

  The waiter coughed discreetly and arranged the breakfast tray’s dishes once more. Lammiter searched automatically for a tip, but he was still thinking about Eleanor. If only she had complained. Why hadn’t she spoken out, given him some warning? Instead, just as he was about to leave for six weeks in Hollywood last spring, she had taken off quietly for Rome. He ought to have followed her, right then; but the Hollywood assignment was important: it was his own play, wasn’t it, that was being turned into a film script? Then the job was postponed. Then it was scheduled for May. Then it was delayed again. Then arranged eventually for the end of June. By that time, he was ready to say, “The hell with all this, anyway,” and join Eleanor in Rome. But by that time, he had got her letter about Luigi, Count Pirotta. Goddammit, he thought in sudden anger, did she think I had arranged all these postponements, these delays? Did she imagine I enjoyed waiting in New York, when she was in Italy? She knew I loved her, didn’t she? My career was hers, too: didn’t she know that?

  “Oh, forget it,” he told himself. “Forget Eleanor.” But how?

  The waiter had left, quickly and suddenly, as if he had decided that the fifteen-per-cent tip on the tray was all that was forthcoming. Add to that the fifteen per cent that the management charged for all services rendered, and the waiter had a thirty-per-cent tip for one small jug of coffee, one small jug of tepid milk with skin on, two rolls (one stale), two transparent slivers of butter, and one small jar of dark brown strawberry jam.

  I wish, Lammiter thought bitterly, someone would reach into a pocket and add thirty per cent on to all my royalties. Then, by God, I perhaps could afford to stay a summer in Rome, and argue Eleanor out of her titled dreams. Argue? That was a false hope: everything was beyond arguing now.

  His annoyance with the waiter, he realised, was simply because the man had stirred up memories of his trouble with Eleanor. Wasn’t it enough that his mind had gone blank of creative ideas, that the play he was about to begin when he arrived in Rome had vanished into thin air? How could he work? He could neither think nor concentrate. He could only look at ruins (for he was standing at the window again) and speculate about the past—a pleasant way of spending the present to avoid thoughts about the future.

  He went back to his packing. It was then that he remembered his photographs. He had six rolls of film being developed and printed at that photography shop just off the Via Veneto. He was to collect them just before eight o’clock this evening, when the shop closed. How could he have been so inept as to forget all about them? He’d have to stay one more night in Rome, after all.

  He called down to the hotel desk, and told them that he would not be checking out that afternoon, that he’d stay one more night. The voice replying to him was genuinely perturbed. It was sorry, extremely sorry, but his room had been assigned to someone else. All rooms were occupied. This was July, busiest month...

  A sudden revulsion seized him, a quick reaction to cut all losses. “The hell with it,” he said aloud. He called the porter’s desk with instructions to get him a seat on a plane, any plane, any flight leaving Rome tonight for New York.

  The chambermaid appeared as he ended his call. Without even seeing his suitcase and grip, she said smiling, “The signore is leaving today?”

  “Yes.” How quickly the news got around! It was a matter of protocol in hotel work: Room 307 is checking out, get in line for the tips, pass the word along. But he had liked this middle-aged woman with the warm smile and kindly phrases. “I’m going home,” he told her.

  “To America?” She looked a little startled. She came from Perugia and had known he meant to visit there some time. Then, quickly, “The signore likes Italy?”

  “Yes, yes,” he told her reassuringly. It wasn’t Italy that was out of joint. It wasn’t the times, either. It was himself. If the whole trip had been a mistake, it was simply that he had been unwilling to admit failure. He was admitting it now. He had been over-confident, too sure of Eleanor. He had let her slip away from him months ago, in New York. At last, he was really facing the truth. He had lost the girl, and had deserved to lose.

  “Just leave everything,” he told the maid. “I’ll be around until this afternoon, at least.” He found a thousand-lire note. She was pleased by that, and more than pleased by the careful speech of thanks he made in Italian. Then he was left in his room to wait for word about his flight to New York.

  He sat down to write some letters. The first was to the man who had produced Lammiter’s play and now was eager to read a second script. Provided, of course, it was the same as the first, only different. He doesn’t want a playwright, Lammiter thought bitterly; all he wants is little Mr. Echo, who’ll be a sure investment; he doesn’t want a piece of creative work, he wants a piece of property. First, he decided, I shall write him the letter I’d like to write. Then I’ll tear that up, smother all indignation, resentment, accurate descriptions of his mentality (I.Q. probably a high 80) and of his education (progressive to the point of being perpetually retarded). And I’ll write a note saying his observations were interesting (he’ll never know how) and that I’m sorry I cannot agree with him.

  How did a man like that ever get into a position of power in the world of art? He had money. But so had cigarette advertisers and buttonhole manufacturers. At least, New York wasn’t yet plagued by the problems of the London theatre, where it was almost compulsory to belong to the esoteric clique if you wanted to be produced or recognised at all.

  The telephone rang.

  He glanced at his watch. Only half an hour since he had ordered his ticket. His ill temper vanished. Quick work, he thought approvingly. He picked up the phone, expecting the porter’s voice. Instead, it was a woman who was speaking.

  “Hallo,” the voice said in English. “Mr. Lammiter?”

  “Yes,” he said, puzzled at first.

  “I wanted to say thank you again.”

  There was no doubt who it was. The way she said thank you made him think of last night and a pretty face turned urgently, almost pathetically, to him under the cold lights of the Pincian Gate.

  “Oh, it’s you—” he recovered himself. “Glad to know you got home safely.”

  She laughed. “I have allies as well as enemies.”

  “So I saw. But I thought your friends were a little late in arriving last night.”

  “That’s why I’d like to thank you.”

  “Oh, forget it. Glad I was there to shout at the nasty men. Who were they, anyhow?”

  “I told you. The enemy.” She laughed softly. He had to admit that he had rarely heard a more attractive sound. She said, “Please—could we meet?”

  Startled, he blurted out, “Meet? Where? Here?”

  “Oh, no! That would be dangerous.”

  “At your place?”

  “Still more dangerous. Meet me at Doney’s. At noon.”

  “But I can’t. I’ve got to wait here until—”

  “Please. At noon. I must see you before you leave.”

  That made him suddenly wary. “Who are you?” he asked. How could she know he was planning to leave today? Did she or her friends have some kind of intelligence service working among the hotels? What was all this, anyway? “Who are you, what are you?” he asked.

  “Someone who needs help. Badly.” Her voice was. low, fearful, but determined. Very quietly she added, “When you see me, pretend our meeting is accidental. Completely accidental. And with that tense warning, she ended the call abruptly.

  After a minute’s thought, he asked the hotel switchboard to inquire where that call had just come from—was it possible to trace the number, or had the operator any idea of the district in Rome from where the call was made? At first, he thought it was his Italian that created the confusion, and then—after several long outbursts of explanation ranging from the polite to the irritated (he must have sounded incredibly stupid)— he suddenly realised it was his question. Because no one had telephoned him.

  He began to argue about that, and then (as he s
aw the futility of all this questioning) he broke it off hastily with a “Sorry, sorry. Please excuse me,” disentangling himself from a conversation that was now beyond his powers to control. “And thank you, signorina. Thank you for your help,” he added. Politeness in Italy, politeness was the key to everything—for the annoyance in the operator’s voice vanished, and he could imagine the smile spreading over her face as she said, “Thank you, signore. And is it possible than another guest was calling you from his room?”

  Yes, it could have been possible. Or the girl could have walked through the lobby to the row of house telephones near the elevator, and used one of them. But how had she known his room number? He might as well ask how she had known his plans for leaving Rome.

  He went downstairs at a quarter to twelve. He hadn’t quite decided if he were going to walk past the café called Doney’s. Or not. It was just like that. He was interested, yes; and curious, definitely curious, but he was still wary. What was this girl? A confidence trickster, a prostitute as the police had suggested last night, a possible blackmailer? Somehow—perhaps he was too gullible—somehow he didn’t believe any of that. He kept remembering the pleading note in her voice. “Someone who needs help. Badly.”

  The lobby, large, dark, and cool, shaded rigorously from the glare of the brilliant Italian sun, was filled with young people returning from their morning pilgrimages. Students clustered in groups: girls in cotton dresses with wide skirts and neatly bloused tops, flat heels, large handbags, and short white gloves; young men in seersucker jackets and crew cuts. It seemed as if half the college population of the United States was visiting Rome this summer of 1956.

  He handed over his room key at the porter’s desk. “Any word of a reservation?”

  The senior porter shook his head. “Not yet, Signore Lammiter. We do not expect to hear anything definite until four o’clock.”

  Ah yes, Lammiter thought: now is the time for everyone to shut up shop for lunch. And after lunch, the siesta. Half-past four might be a more accurate prediction before any business would be done on that hot July afternoon. He turned towards the door, leaving an anxious group of schoolteachers from Ohio inquiring about seats for Traviata at the Baths of Caracalla. He halted at the entrance, hesitating behind the heavy curtain of white sailcloth which cut off the sunlight at the threshold. For a moment he watched the crowded hotel lobby; for a moment he listened to the babel of tongues. He could recognise at least six foreign languages being spoken in addition to occasional Italian—Spanish, Brazilian, Portuguese, French, English, Swedish, or Danish (he wasn’t quite sure, and Austrian German. Labels on neat piles of luggage near the doorway came from practically every country in Western Europe; from Egypt and Israel and Syria; from Ceylon, Hong Kong, Australia. For a moment, the noise and movement added to his indecision as if they hypnotised him. Then he noticed the large clock over the porter’s desk. Five minutes to twelve.

  He pushed aside the gently blowing screen and stepped through the open doorway into the brilliant blinding light. The light breeze puffed its hot breath into his face. He turned sharply left and entered the broad sweep of the Via Vittorio Veneto. He walked at an even pace on the wide sidewalk, as the other foreigners were doing. He was a man on his way to Doney’s for a drink and a pleasant view of the world strolling by.


  The Via Vittorio Veneto is the main promenade in Rome, a wide curve of a slowly descending hill, edged with trees, sweeping down from the old Roman wall to the more commercial streets of the modern city, covering no greater distance than half of a brief mile. But it contains much. It is the street of big hotels and sidewalk cafés, of small expensive shops for perfume and pretty shoes; of banks and imposing buildings; of lovely bareheaded girls strolling, breasts out, waistlines in, between the rows of café tables; of the Capuchin church with its coarse-gowned tonsured friars welcoming visitors to view its crypts filled with dead brothers’ bones—skull and ribs and pelvis laid out in patterns like a carefully arranged flower bed or a burst of fireworks. It is the street of thick trees giving dappled shade to broad sidewalks; of crowding taxis, smart cars, white-uniformed traffic policemen; of young men swerving on flatulent Vespas, foreigners on foot, young Italian soldiers on wide-eyed leave in ill-fitting uniforms; of crisp, khaki-suited tourist police with a protective air; of the United States Embassy sitting placidly among walled gardens and ornamental balustrades; of grave-faced, tall, handsome carabinieri with gold braid, black cavalry boots, and carefully held swords, pacing majestically in matched pairs; of the Excelsior, where Texas oil men and Hollywood stars scatter largesse and perpetuate the myth that every American is a millionaire; of neighbouring Doney’s, where the chic and the odd, the dramatic and the beautiful, the bad and the vicious, the known and the strange, the quiet and flamboyant, the tragic and the farcical, the enchanted and the charming, all gather before the midday and evening meals to eye and be eyed.

  The girl couldn’t have chosen a meeting place more favoured by foreigners, Lammiter thought as he reached Doney’s. The pre-luncheon crowd had started to gather. The little round tables, which edged the sidewalk like a guard of honour, leaving a centre path for the pedestrians (and it was surprising how many people would saunter past, not only once or twice but three times and more), were already half-filled. In another fifteen minutes they would all be occupied.

  He kept his pace slow, untroubled, his eyes seemingly looking for a table where a gay umbrella would provide sufficient shade. He had the sudden fear that she wouldn’t arrive, that this little incident would end as a dreary, hour of waiting, of false alarms, of fading hopes, and a sudden angry retreat to a lonely meal. Everything had gone so badly for him in the last four weeks that he had begun to expect nothing but disappointment. And then he saw her. He didn’t have to try very hard to look surprised.

  “Hallo!” he said, stopping abruptly. She was alone at one of the tables that lined the grass edge of the sidewalk. Behind her was a row of parked cars, and then a stream of steady traffic. One table, to her left, was still empty; the other, on her right, was occupied by a handsome red-haired Italian, who was too openly interested in the girl to be anything but what he seemed—someone who admired a pretty woman. Pretty? She was beautiful. Lammiter stared down at her in amazement. “Well,” he added, beginning to smile, “well—”

  “It can’t be!” she said, startled, smiling, delighted. It all seemed a natural succession of emotions. “But in Rome, everyone meets,” she added. “Sooner or later, everyone meets.”

  “Are you waiting for a friend? Or may I join you?”

  “Please do.”

  So he pulled round the other wicker chair to the side of the small round table, and sat down to face her. Behind him, he heard almost a sigh of disappointment from her Italian admirer.

  “Have I changed so much?” she asked as he kept looking at her. She was wearing a sleeveless white linen blouse, low-necked. Her bare arms were tanned, rounded, firm.

  “In a way, yes. Last time we met, you weren’t so cool-looking.”

  “Cool? In this temperature?”

  “It’s hot,” he agreed. “And I hear it’s going to get hotter.” Behind him, a chair scraped as it was pushed back. A waiter hurried forward to lift the money that had been left to pay for the Italian’s Cinzano and to take Lammiter’s order.

  “Beer: Danish,” he told the waiter, watching the Italian walk away. “Too bad. I spoiled his plans for a pleasant luncheon.” And possibly a cosy siesta, he thought. He studied the girl’s face, and he was smiling again. He hadn’t felt as relaxed as this, or as little unhappy, for a whole month. Was he beginning at last to get over Eleanor? If so, this girl might be the pleasantest cure he could find. Her dark eyes were wide-spaced, richly lashed under excellently marked eyebrows. The forehead was broad and intelligent. Her features were classical, as Roman as one of the pretty stone girls in the Campidoglio museum. And, most startling against the honey colour of her glowing skin, she wore no make-up on her lips. They
were soft, natural. It was a current fashion among the Roman girls, he had noticed. With a white face, it would have had a drab effect. With their deeply tanned faces and skilfully mascaraed eyelashes, the natural lips were startling.

  “At least we can talk now,” she said, “and quickly. Before someone else sits down. Or perhaps the sun will discourage them.”

  He realised then that only their table was shaded at this time of day by the small tree behind them. Other tables had their sheltering umbrellas or awnings. But here, the three tables usually depended on the tree. He looked at the girl speculatively. It was always difficult to remember that anyone as decorative as this could also be clever. But it was necessary to remember that. More guardedly, he said, “Why did you want to see me?”

  “To thank you.”

  He shook his head, smiling. Try again.”

  “To warn you.”


  “We must keep smiling. We are talking about America— about Harvard in 1950—just before you went off to Korea.”

  “Look—” he said.

  “Please smile,” she urged, her voice low. The waiter brought a bottle of beer, opened it, poured it, and left. Lammiter said, as if there had been no interruption, “How do you know about Harvard? Or Korea? And who is watching us now so that we’ve got to keep this bright and breezy merriment stuck all over our faces? And why should I be warned? I’m in no danger. I’m just a peaceful guy who has been minding his own miserable business for four weeks. I’m leaving Rome today, anyway.”