Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
The Water Garden
The four-poster bed in Nord’s bedroom might have belonged to a cardinal (or even a pope), but Countess von Kasabier’s taste in art and decoration was for the most part, contemporary. In the salon, the walls were hung with paintings and prints, mainly still lives and landscapes, although a large portrait of a woman hung above the fireplace. It was painted in a Cubist style that rendered the face and upper body as a collection of flattened planes and geometric shapes. The sitter, who had a strong nose, dark hair, and heavily-lidded grey eyes, was posed next to a vase of deep-throated arum lilies, their furled petals resembling white flags of truce. Elsewhere, Nord noticed a rug with a rich geometric pattern, lamps with bases in the shape of slender columns, and a statue in bronze of a stylised nymph. One painting in particular caught Nord’s eye. Smaller than the rest, it appeared to be a landscape in oils, and while it contained no recognisable landmarks, the predominant palette was a dull ochre that suggested wheat fields.
She turned as Countess von Kasabier entered the room, and found herself face-to-face with the original of the Cubist portrait. Nord pictured the white shapes of the lilies. What was it that Theo Fogge had told her in the car? The Countess’s name is Sybille, but her friends call her Lili?
The Countess, whom Nord guessed to be in her fifties, was dressed in a silk robe with loose kimono sleeves. Her hands were heavily beringed. She favoured clothing and jewels in unusual colours: carnelian, opal, a rich reddish brown. It was only when they moved to the dining room to take their places at the table, that Nord observed that her hostess walked with a slight limp, and that she supported herself with the help of a slender cane.
Most of the other guests knew each other well, and the conversation centred on people and places she knew nothing about. The doings of mutual acquaintances mingled with politics, where the main topic of interest for those who lived in Italy appeared to be Mussolini’s support for a scheme to drain the Pontine Marshes. From malaria-infested swamps the conversation eventually drifted to the equally inhospitable regions of Antarctica, and Countess von Kasabier said, ‘It may interest you to know, Miss Nord, that no one at this table is astounded by the idea of an Antarctic expedition made up entirely of women.’
‘I think it’s rather amusing,’ Marlowe Scott said. The tall American with severely styled blonde hair had a mid-Western drawl that made her sound permanently amused. ‘From what I can see, polar explorers are usually men who are desperate to go somewhere where there are no women. Rather clever of Miss Nord to reverse it.’
Nord did not feel she was desperate to escape from men – she still had occasional regretful thoughts of Malcolm Howells, whose expedition plans with Sir Frank Shackworthy were now well advanced – but she bit back her objection. I am learning diplomacy she thought.
‘Well, I think it’s a terrific idea,’ the young woman seated opposite her said. ‘I’d go there like a shot.’’
Halle Bergstrom, the tennis champion, pulled a face. ‘I wouldn’t. I would hate the weather. I don’t like to be cold.’
Theo Fogge poured herself more wine from one of the bottles on the table. ‘I drove to the Arctic Circle last November,’ she said. ‘It was cold as hell. But I didn’t mind. I’d have gone further, if there’d been any roads.’
‘In America,’ Nord said, ‘I was told that if I wished to interest women in my expedition, I should emphasise the need to wear furs in the polar regions, because women find furs irresistible.’
‘Oh well, there is something ruggedly appealing about those big shaggy coats that polar explorers wear, don’t you think?’ said Julian Afterly, one of the two men present. He was a musician and composer and had driven up from Florence with his companion, a handsome Italian who spoke heavily-accented English.
His remark was greeted with laughter. ‘My dear Julian, are you telling us that you would go to the South Pole solely for the opportunity to wear a particularly handsome fur?’ Marlowe Scott said.
‘What does it matter? I’ll never get the chance, alas, as Miss Nord has announced that her expedition is off-limits to males!’
He pulled a tragic face, and his comment inspired a chorus of commiseration. Miss Scott hastened to assure him that in the eyes of everyone at the table, he was une soeur.
‘But seriously, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to make history?’ the woman who had spoken earlier said earnestly. She had auburn hair, and Nord recalled being told she was a pilot. ‘Regardless of who gets to the South Pole first, Miss Nord will already have set a new record simply by going there.’
Her friend, presumably the one Theo Fogge had likened to Anna May Wong, said, ‘I too would regard it as a great honour to go to Antarctica. It is very special place, I think.’
‘Do you know,’ Countess von Kasabier said, ‘that when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a polar explorer? I announced my intention on my sixth birthday. You can imagine the reaction I got! Particularly from my father. And yet, it was all his fault.’
Nord looked at her enquiringly and the Countess said, ‘My father, Miss Nord, was a diplomat. But before that, he led a very adventurous life. He even served with Nordenskjöld on the explorer’s Greenland expedition. A map of the expedition hung in the library, and when I was a child I would beg him to tell me stories about icebergs and polar bears. No wonder I dreamed of following in his footsteps!’
Nord’s curiosity was piqued. She wondered how the Countess had acquired her limp, and whether what Theo Fogge had referred to as her ‘bad leg’ had put an end to Lili von Kasabier’s dreams of becoming an Arctic explorer.
Dessert was a mélange of fruit poached in wine. It was served with tiny macaroons and accompanied by cognac. By the time the coffee arrived, the dinner was turning into a party. More cognac was poured, and they shifted into the salon next to the terrace where comfortable chairs were arranged around a piano. Julian Afterley was a skilled and inventive pianist who shifted effortlessly between styles and moods, and there was dancing and more cocktails, expertly mixed by Marlowe Scott. It was enjoyable, but Nord found herself starting to yawn. Her shoulders ached from the flight and the cognac had made her sleepy. When the guests spilled out into the garden – where coloured lanterns had been hung among the trees – she excused herself and went up to her room.
The housekeeper had come in while she was at dinner and folded back the counterpane. Nord released the straps of her dress and stepped out of it, leaving the white gown in a pool of silk on the rug. She climbed beneath the covers. But despite her tiredness, she did not fall asleep immediately. Her thoughts ran round in circles. She was certain that the Countess had invited her for a purpose, but the exact nature of that purpose eluded her. Her mind shifted to the painted landscape, with its view of ochre-coloured wheat fields. Finally, lulled by the hum of conversation from the garden that drifted through the open window, she fell asleep.
Nord woke early. But the air was so warm and mild that it was impossible to stay in bed. She threw off the covers and changed into a swimsuit and a robe. Seizing a towel, she crept down the stairs and out a side door on the south side of the house, where there was a pool. She’d noticed it the previous night while they were having drinks on the terrace. At close quarters, she saw that it formed the centrepiece of a water garden. The pool had been built to resemble a Roman bath. At the shallow end, stone steps descended into the water. At the opposite end the water was deep and shaded by umbrella pines. Nord left the towel and robe on a seat among the pines, and dived into the deep end. She swam half a dozen lengths in a rapid crawl, relaxing as the water eased the tightness from her arms and back, before rolling onto her back and swimming some more laps in a lazy backstroke that allowed her to gaze up at the sky.
When she emerged from the shallow end of the pool, the Countess was seated beneath the pines, her cane propped against the edge of the stone seat. She passed Nord her towel.
‘I hope I didn’t wake you,’ Nord said, as she towelled her hair.
The Countess shook her head. ‘I often take my breakfast out here in the morning.’ She gestured at the tray beside her on the bench. ‘Would you care to join me?’
Nord’s swim had given her a good appetite, and she accepted the offer gladly. As her hostess poured coffee from a silver pot she helped herself from a bowl of sliced melon and tore open a soft white roll.
Nord sensed that Countess von Kasabier might be about to explain why she had invited her to the Villa Gambarelli. Sure enough, after Nord had offered some compliments on the weather her hostess said, ‘I have been meaning to ask you about your mother, Miss Nord. Is she well?’
‘Since my father died she spends most of her time painting,’ Nord said. She added, ‘But that will not surprise you, perhaps, as you own one of her pictures.’
Countess von Kasabier said, ‘I saw last night that you had noticed it.’ When Nord did not reply she continued, ‘You are wondering, no doubt, why I did not tell you when I invited you here that I knew your mother. To be honest, I have not seen her for many years, and I did not know what she might have told you about me.’
‘She has never spoken of you at all.’
If the Countess was disappointed by Nord’s response, she did not show it. She took a silver case from the pocket of her robe, extracted a clove-scented cigarette, and fitted it into a holder.
‘I don’t mean to pry, Countess, but I am curious to know how you became acquainted with my mother.’
‘Last night I mentioned that my father was a diplomat. His first posting was to Denmark. There he met my mother, whose family owned a shipping line. You have heard, perhaps, of the Northern Steamship Company?’
‘Dampskibsselskabet Nordlig,’ Nord said. ‘There was an office in Oslo.’
The Countess nodded. ‘The company was founded by my maternal grandfather. He was half Danish, half Russian, descended from merchants and ship-owners with commercial interests in Svalbard and the Faroe Islands. My mother’s older brother ran the Oslo office. When we lived in Copenhagen, I often visited my aunt and uncle and cousins in Oslo – or Kristiania as it was then.
‘It was during one of these visits that I met your mother. We were introduced by Fritz Thaulow, the artist. I was interested in modern art, and I wished to acquire some work by one of the younger Norwegian artists. He took me to the warehouse where several of his students shared a studio. Your mother was one of them. I went back the next day and bought the landscape you saw in the salon.
‘Your mother and I became friends. Even after her marriage – and mine – we continued to see each other every now and then, when I visited Norway. I even met you on one or two occasions. You were very young though; I wouldn’t expect you to remember.’
She added, ‘You remind me a little of your mother at the same age.’
‘I am supposed to take more after my father.’
‘Yes – Geirr; I see him in you too. I introduced him to your mother, you know. Oh yes,’ she went on, ‘your mother and I were planning to travel to the Arctic at the time, and we went out to lunch with my cousin, who was a ship’s captain. He happened to bring his great friend, a young surgeon named Geirr Nordahl, along with him.’
‘You and my mother planned to go to the Arctic together?’
‘Strange, isn’t it? We had some mad idea of taking a cabin on a ship going north to the Finmark and as far as Svalbard, so we could see the midnight sun. It didn’t happen, of course. Your mother married Geirr instead, and they went to live in Farsund. And I – well, a few years later I acquired this.’ She gestured to the cane.
Nord did not know what to say. Her mother had told her nothing of this. But then, how often had her mother spoken about her life before she was married?
‘Last night I told you that as a girl I wanted to be an Arctic explorer. As a diplomat, my father frequently entertained men of note at our home, including explorers. Nordenskjöld, who had remained a personal friend of my father’s, was one of them. Nansen too, who was a diplomat like my father; first for the Norwegian government, and then for the League of Nations. When they visited they left souvenirs. Netsilik ornaments made of stone, maps, pieces of scientific equipment, the tusk of a Narwhal. It fascinated me. The Arctic seemed to me to embody everything that was extreme and mysterious – those regions that lie beyond ordinary experience and common understanding. When I met your mother, I thought I had found a kindred soul. As an artist, of course, her interest in the Arctic was different to mine. I think she believed it would show her a different kind of light.’
Nord thought about her mother’s paintings. One of their chief effects, she realised, was unease: as if the landscapes depicted in the paintings were devoid not only of easily recognisable objects, but of certainties. Throughout her conversation with the Countess, a long-forgotten memory had been surfacing, although she could not have sworn to its veracity. Her mother and a friend had been having afternoon tea in the tearoom at Steen and Strom’s department store in Oslo. She had been there as well, in a chair that was too high for her, so that her feet were unable to reach the floor but dangled awkwardly above it.
On the table there had been a tiered stand with sandwiches and little cakes. While her mother and her mother’s friend talked, she studied the gap between her feet and the ground, willing her legs to grow the extra distance. It had been warm in the department store, and her woollen camisole itched. Try as she might, she could remember nothing of the conversation that day. Nor could she recall what had preceded or followed this incident. Had the afternoon tea at Strom’s been the conclusion to a visit to a gallery or museum, or to the Botanic Gardens? And had the friend been Countess von Kasabier, or someone else?
Not for the first time, Nord found herself wondering about her parents’ marriage. She felt certain that her father had loved her mother. Yet even as a child she’d been aware that there was something about her mother that made her different from other mothers, whether they were cheerful, anxious, or scolding. A distance or even detachment, as if her truest kinship was not with the human world of emotions and personalities, but with the impersonal elements of stone, water, and sky.
She asked, ‘What was she like when you knew her – my mother?’
Lili von Kasabier blew smoke into the air while she considered the question. ‘She was remarkably indifferent to beauty,’ she said. ‘Perhaps because she herself was beautiful, and saw how that was supposed to satisfy women, make them content simply to be admired. Your mother found that irksome. She wanted to be admired for what she did, and not what she appeared to be. In that way, I imagine that you resemble her.’
The Countess extinguished her cigarette against the edge of the stone seat.
She said. ‘I hope you will visit me in my library, while you are here. I have some maps that might interest you. You could show me where you plan to go in Antarctica.’
Lili von Kasabier was not so vulgar as to offer Nord money in person. This was managed by a third party, a Signor Sarfatti who contacted Nord at her hotel in Florence, where she was staying overnight before leaving for Switzerland early the next morning. Signor Sarfatti was a short, balding man in a pinstriped suit, who introduced himself as Countess von Kasabier’s attorney. He told her that the Countess wished to offer her 100,000 Danish kroner for the expedition.
Nord did rapid sums in her head. 100,000 kroner – together with the advance Hearst had promised – it was enough, surely it was enough! Not to purchase a dedicated exploration vessel, but to buy passage for a small expedition and its aircraft on one of the whaling ships that sailed south from Norway each summer?
‘I assume that there are conditions to the Countess’s generosity,’ she said.
‘Very few, actually.’
Signor Sarfatti undid his briefcase and removed some papers. He told her that the Countess had requested that her own name not be mentioned in regard to the expedition. ‘If you are pressed,’ Signor Sarfatti said, ‘she would prefer you to say only that you have received a donation from a philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous.’
Nord hid a smile. It seemed to be her fate to be blessed with patrons who wished their contribution to remain unknown.
‘I accept the condition.’
‘Countess von Kasabier also requests that you consider including Miss Dorothy Fogge in the expedition.’
‘Theo Fogge?’ Nord was puzzled. As far as she knew, the Englishwoman was not a pilot. Nord’s chief impressions of her – besides her driving, which was excellent – were that she was fond of a drink, and was visibly infatuated with Halle Bergstrom, the tennis champion. Then a memory fell into place, and she recalled where she’d seen the name Dorothy Fogge before. It was in one of the English papers, an article about the woman who’d set a new long-distance record by driving from London to Finland.
‘Countess von Kasabier has a high opinion of Miss Fogge’s abilities, including her skills as a mechanic. She believes she would be a valuable addition to your expedition.’
‘If Miss Fogge herself is willing, I will, of course, consider the request.’
‘There is one more thing. The Countess has the impression that as an explorer you have the right to name any landmarks of geographical significance you discover.’
‘Countess von Kasabier wishes me to name a part of Antarctica after herself?’
‘No,’ Signor Sarfatti replied. ‘She asks that you name it after your mother.’