Martin encounters something novel
|(You need to read the previous parts to make sense of this.)
Life on our farm had changed little during the span of my life. As with most quasi-rural properties, not much actual farming takes place anymore—apart from Mother keeping a few chickens around for fresh eggs. The property comprises a large main building; a barn; and half a dozen smaller structures ranging from an outhouse to the iconic Norwegian stabbur*[A raised, wooden building where dry food is stored.] where we keep salted meats, cereals, and other dry food. Whenever the household requires fresh supplies anything can be had within a twenty-minute radius, at a leisurely pace. Double that time in winter, when the snow piles up.
Follow the road running past our place westwards for two kilometers, and you’ll come upon the city of Christiania. These days it’s a quiet provincial place in the shadow of Akershus Fortress—the population well below ten thousand. Its roots go back to A.D. 1000, and it grew around the site where the River Aker joins the lovely Christiania Fjord*[The fjord is referred to as Fold in Norse times and is still seen in county names such as Vestfold.]. Father told me the mostly wooden city burned to the ground 200 years ago. Christian IV, the Danish king at the time*[Christian VII is the monarch in 1800], ordered the town rebuilt in its present location, modestly naming it after himself in the process. The city of Bergen has long since eclipsed our town, but we take pride in having been the capital of Norway before the union with Denmark.
My clearest childhood memories are of green leaves sprouting from birch trees during spring; sunlight sparkling on the fjord in summer; and snow blanketing the landscape in pristine white during winter. The boys would tear about or act out imaginary wars of Norwegians versus Swedes in narrow streets paved with cobblestones. We caught fish and crabs in the ocean and peppered the fortress guards with pebbles when they dozed off on duty. To us, the town was tranquil and eternal whether it slumbered under the summer sun or lay frozen under the iron sky.
My beloved city had its faults: Open sewage flowing through the meaner streets along the river; beggars bothering foreigners around better lodgings; many houses were of poor quality; and water sources froze solid when winter came. But these were just facts of life, hardly noticed as season followed season.
I was oblivious to the murkier aspects of Christiania society as a child—the gossiping and intrigues. Awareness came only when a certain someone pointed them out to me. I mention this because it impacts events to come.
* * *
Summer parties in Christiania are commonplace among the upper strata. Compared to Bergen, the town isn’t much to brag about, small and tucked out of the way near the border with Sweden as it is. However, it has its upper social circles, comprising industry magnates, officials, wealthy merchants, and the odd foreigner, most of whom are assumed to be of noble blood, whatever their background.
As was his custom, the Herr Bernt Anker, the wealthiest man in the country, hosted a string of parties this spring. Partly because grandfather Einar was a retired, but well known, colonel and in part because the Christiania elite had re-elevated Mother to French nobility, the Nores tended to be invited. An RSVP for the 20th of April had arrived weeks ago, and Father wanted to attend to advance his business relations. “Everyone who matters will be there,” he promised.
As the heads of the family pointed out, at 15 society considered me an adult. Which meant I was expected to attend social events in the company of my parents. I’d rather spend a nice Sunday afternoon loafing about, but Mother dismissed my objections out of hand. “It is time for you to appear in society, dear. All the Right People will be present. This is your first opportunity to be properly introduced,” she said. “Mind your manners and don’t embarrass the family name, thank you very much!” I got that a lot and agreed out of habit without giving it any further thought.
Mother had ordered my first real suit—Directoire style—from a Copenhagen tailor in anticipation of the upcoming social events. A local seamstress had taken all my measurements, and Mother dispatched them to the capital, via her sister. Despite the careful preparations, she had worried about the delivery for weeks. Much to our relief, we found it fit me splendidly.
I cut quite the dashing figure and a new, stylish top hat completed the attire. Underneath the topper, I sported a mop of light blond hair over handsome features and a wiry build with shoulders broadening with the promise of manhood.
“Every time you go on an expedition with your grandfather, you come back looking more handsome,” Mother gushed. “And your teeth must be the envy of every woman. You’re such a good-looking boy, you’ll soon have to fight the girls off.”
As there was no wriggling my way out of attending, at least I would make a good impression.
In summer, Sunday events start with the midday meal. Which means the guests begin trickling in after church services. Weather allowing, one enjoys the pleasant company of one’s peers in the gardens, until the whole affair ends after a light evening supper. Naturally, all food is accompanied by liberal amounts of wine and liquors. I was under strict orders to keep away from these—a command I had no intention of obeying. What’s the use of adult status if you can’t enjoy the benefits?
When the day arrived, blue skies and only the mildest of breezes promised perfect party weather, although the snow on the surrounding hilltops made it clear winter had not quite given up the struggle. Father summoned our best city carriage as the festivity took place on the opposite side of town. I’m not sure who this estate belonged to—probably a lesser Anker family member. The property could have served as the model for a painting, with its large, well-tended garden—perfect for such occasions. A large, three-story main house dominated the grounds, with the obligatory secondary buildings scattered around—all painted in the traditional white. Two hundred meters to the south, the fjord sparkled as the breeze created little ripples. A copse of trees hid the gardens from travelers on the nearby east-west road leading from Christiania. Finally, off in the distance to the east, the flag on top the fortress fluttered lazily.
I abandoned all hope of enjoying myself the moment I stepped from the carriage. Stuffy, old people in their Sunday fineries cluttered the driveway and gardens. The only people anywhere near my age were two young officers from the Akershus Fortress. They noticed me staring at them; gave me a disdainful look and turned away. There would be no relief from tedium there.
I was about to declare the day beyond salvage; steal a bottle of wine; and sneak off to the fjord, when my interest was piqued. Our hosts had gathered next to the driveway to greet the guests as they arrived. In the background, the large French doors leading into the house framed a young woman. Her dress looked expensive, but she did not appear to be an integrate part of Herr Anker’s household.
It seems obvious now I was a late bloomer when it came to girls—this being the first occasion where one caught my interest. As a member of the fairer sex, I mean. The boys I hung around with talked about girls all the time, and the older ones boasted of multiple conquests. In retrospect it’s clear none, even those claiming considerable experience, knew what they were talking about. I have to laugh when I think about the misconceptions, and how they got several details about the female anatomy wrong.
However, lewd thoughts were not on my mind. I was experiencing something new: my heart raced uncontrollably, my palms felt moist and my knees threatened to buckle. There was no rational explanation for it—one moment I was mind-numbingly bored, and a split second later I was love-struck. I knew absolutely nothing about her and up close she might be pox-scarred, but it didn’t matter. There was no doubt in my mind: she was The One.
This is how I recall seeing her the first time: A true Nordic beauty in her early twenties, who wore a green summer dress complimented by a purple scarf draped over her shoulders and left arm. Equally important, I noticed something I hadn’t paid attention to before: curves, which the soft material of her garments did a poor job of concealing. I distinctly remember noticing one more thing which called out to me: her whole demeanor told me she wished she was anywhere but here.
The awareness I was moving in her direction filled me with conflicted emotions. I suddenly felt self-conscious and awkward. At the same time, I desperately wanted to catch her eye. Whatever my ideas on the matter, etiquette demanded we greet the hosts. I briefly entertained the idea of slipping back into the carriage and hide, while dreaming about her. But Father pushed me resolutely between the shoulder blades and dispelled the notion. There was no alternative but to follow the stream of people moving towards Herr and Fru*[Herr is similar to the German word. Mr. in English. Fru is similar to the German Frau or Mrs. in English.] Anker. Which would bring me close to Her.
Minutes later, we stood in the presence of the Ankers. Herr Anker himself was a pleasant man with a quick line and an open smile for everyone. I first met him last summer when the Englishman Thomas Malthus visited our city and Christiania society scrambled to arrange parties in his honor. Anker was an educated man and something of a philosopher. His anecdotes and stories stick with me to this day. His wife, Mathia Anker was a stern and formidable woman in her sixties. Today she played the role of hostess to perfection, with delighted greetings for each guest as they arrived.
My parents greeted the Ankers according to etiquette and formally presented me as the family’s pride and hope. Under normal circumstances, my inclination would have been to utter a few suitable phrases and then make myself scarce as fast as possible. But I was now within the girl’s field of vision, and my gut told me I needed to impress her. Or at least not look like a country bumpkin. Showing good manners couldn’t fail to find favor with the ladies, I figured.
I’d decided upon a continental greeting as I’d practiced with Mother, but now my mind drew a complete blank. Improvising, I bowed deeply while flourishing my hat. “Martin Nore! At your service, sir and Madam!” As luck had it, my voice had broken last year, or a shrill squeak might have spoiled the impression.
Herr Anker looked somewhat nonplussed at my display of enthusiasm but returned the courtesy with a jovial smile. “Bernt Anker at yours, young Martin. I seem to remember you breaking a stack of plates, last we met.” He laughed, and I found it encouraging he remembered me. Even better, my heart’s desire appeared to have noticed, and I saw her studying me with a hint of amusement. Fru Anker did not look pleased, however, her mouth formed a thin line at the memory of the little incident.
Our host introduced us to his assembled family and relatives. Sadly, he didn’t mention the girl at all, and I was no wiser as to her identity. And when we’d finally disengaged from the crowd around Herr Anker, she had disappeared from view.
* * *
According to Mother, the midday meal would not be served for another hour, and she sent me on my merry way. “So run along and find yourself some refreshments, dear.” This freed me from her watchful gaze and recalling Grandfather’s lessons about breaking the enemy’s line of sight, I nonchalantly drifted toward the main building.
The servants had set tables draped with white linen in the garden’s upper section. Men were still busy putting the finishing touches to the refreshments, carrying large tubs of chilled water with bottles in them and placing them on the sideboards. A young boy placed a silver tray holding a dewy mug of delicious looking lemonade close to where I was standing, and I made a mental note to pick up a glass.
As I strolled among the tables, I sought to clear my mind, while nodding left and right—not that anyone took notice. I traversed the garden before I circled around the mansion. The Ankers were greeting the last arrivals.
The girl was still nowhere to be seen on the grounds. Uninvited images appeared in my brain, including one of her strolling on the arms of the two officers. Annoyance turned to dismay, then despair. I simply couldn’t help obsessing about her.
After I skirted a group of portly gentlemen puffing on fat cigars, I ended back in Mother’s field of view. She raised an eyebrow, wondering what mischief I was up to. I ducked back out of sight, rather than risk her calling me over for another lecture on proper behavior.
A flash of green and purple vanishing into the orchards next to the gardens caught my attention. Finally! I checked my surroundings again. Mother now had her back turned, while Father conversed with a group of local businessmen. The other guests were congealing into groups discussing all the important topics, which would be politics, trade, and farming.
Making a show of admiring the early spring flowers, I meandered in the direction of the orchards. Once I was out of view from the adults, I turned 90 degrees and struck out towards the beach. A narrow, but well-kept path lead between the trees and I thought it unlikely someone wearing a dress would venture in amongst branches, dirt, and shrubberies. Again, doubt reared its ugly head—what to do if, or when, I found her? Pretend to have stumbled upon her by chance? Proclaim undying love? Perhaps she'd slipped off to meet with a beau? For a second, I considered retreat, but after a minute of mental conflict decided to follow Granddad’s advice and scout the lay of the land before deciding on my next move.
I pressed on, advancing like the seasoned hunter I had become. My senses were so heightened, I thought I could pick out her perfume from afar.
As I moved past the corner of a trimmed hedge, I almost crashed into the figure standing there with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Why are you following me, boy?” The scorn in her voice was unmistakable.