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Sigrid Undset

Norwegian Novelist

1882-1949

A selection from
JENNY

Narrated by Ellen Archer

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All day long the weather had been bad, with cold, pale clouds high up in the sky; towards evening some thin brass-yellow stripes appeared on the western horizon. Jenny had been up to Monte Celio to sketch in the afternoon, but it did not come to much she had been sitting listlessly on the big stairs outside of San Gregorio, looking down into the grove where the big trees were beginning to bud and daisies shone all over the grass. She came back through the avenue below the south side of the Palatine. The ruins showed dull grey against the palms of the convent on the mountain-top; the evergreen shrubs hung on the slope, powdered with chalky dust.

Some shivering postcard-sellers loitered about outside the Constantin arch on the Piazza, where the ruins of the Colesseum, the Palatine, and the Forum lay. Very few tourists were about; a couple of skinny old ladies bargained in vile Italian with a mosaic pedlar.

A small boy of barely three hung on to Jenny's cloak, offering her a small wisp of pansies. He was exquisitely black eyed and long haired, and dressed in national costume, with pointed hat, velvet jacket, and sandals over white woollen socks. He could not speak distinctly yet, but he could manage to ask for a soldo.

Jenny gave him the coin, and instantly the mother came up to his side, thanking her and taking the money herself. She, too, had tried to give her dress a national touch by lacing a red velvet bodice on top of her dirty checked blouse, and pinning on top of her hair a serviette folded into a square. She carried an infant in her arms. It was three weeks old, she said, in answer to Jenny's question. Yes, the poor dear was ill.

The infant was no bigger than Jenny's own boy had been at birth. Its skin was red and sore and peeling, it was panting as if its throat were choked by mucus, and the eyes looked wearily from under inflamed, half-closed lids.

Oh yes, she took it every day to the hospital for treatment, said the mother, but they said there that it was going to die. Best thing for it, too the woman was looking so tired and sad, besides being ugly and toothless.

Jenny felt the tears mounting to her eyes. Poor little creature, it certainly was much better for it to die. She passed her hand caressingly over the little ugly face. She had given the woman some money, and was on the point of going when a man suddenly passed her. He took off his hat and stopped for a moment, but walked on as Jenny did not acknowledge his salute. It was Helge Gram. She was too much taken aback to think of answering. She bent down to the little boy with the pansies, taking his hands and pulling him closer to her, and talked to him, trying to master the unreasonable shivering of her whole body.

She turned her head once in the direction he had gone and saw him standing on the stairs that led to the street from the Piazza round the Colosseum, and looking in her direction.

She remained in the same position, talking to the child and the woman. When she looked up again he was gone, but she waited long after she had seen his grey coat and hat disappear round a corner.

Then she went home, almost running through side streets and passages, afraid of meeting him every time she turned a corner.

She got as far as the other side of Pincio, and went to have some food in a trattoria where she had never been before. Then after a rest and some wine, she began to feel better.

If she met Helge and he spoke to her it would be very painful; she would much prefer to escape it, but if it happened, it was nothing to be so senselessly afraid of. Everything between them was finished; what had occurred after their separation was no concern of his, and he had no right to take her to task for anything. Whatever he knew about it, and whatever he had to say, she had said it all to herself, for nobody knew better than she what she had done. She had to answer only to herself; nothing else could compare with that ordeal.

Need she fear anybody? Nobody could do her a great wrong than she had done to herself.

It had been a bad day one of those days when she did not feel sober. However, she felt better now.

Scarcely was she out in the street before the same stupid, desperate fright came over her again, and, without realizing it, she rushed on as if lashed by it, with clenched hands and muttering to herself.

Once she pulled off her gloves, because she was burning hot, and she recollected suddenly having noticed a wet spot on one of them after she had caressed the child. She flung them away in disgust.

When she reached home she stood a moment hesitating in the passage, then knocked at Gunnar's door, but he was not in. She went to look on the roof; there was no one there.

She entered her room, lit the lamp, and sat staring at the flame, her arms folded. After a while she rose and began walking restlessly up and down the floor only to sit down again as before. She listened breathlessly to every sound on the stairs. Oh, if only Gunnar would come! And not the other one. But how could he? He did not know where she lived he might have met somebody who knew and asked. Oh, Gunnar, Gunnar, come!

She would go straight to him, throw herself in his arms.

The moment she had seen Helge Gram's light brown eyes again, her whole past, that had begun under their glance, confronted her. It all came back the disgust, the doubt of her own ability to feel, to will and to choose, and the suspicion that in reality she wanted what she said she did not. While she was pretending to herself that she wanted to be strong, pure, and whole in her feelings, and while she said she wanted to be honest, courageous, disciplined to work and to sacrifice herself for others she allowed herself to be tossed between moods and desires she did not care to fight, although she knew she should have done so. She had pretended to love so as to sneak into a place in life which she could never have attained if she had been honest.

She had wanted to change her nature to fall in with the others who lived, although she knew she would always be a stranger among them because she was of a different kind. She had not been able to stand alone, a prisoner, so to say, of her own nature. And her relations to those who were strange to her innermost being the son and the father had been unnatural and repulsive. In consequence of it her own inner self was ruined; every fixed point in herself, to which she had held on, gave way crumbled to nothing. She felt as if she were dissolving from within.

If Helge came, if she met him, she knew that the despair and disgust of her own life would overwhelm her. She did not know what would happen, but one thing was certain she could not face a repetition of the old scenes.

And Gunnar. All these weeks, while he had been begging of her to be his, she had not made up her mind if she loved him or not. He wanted her such as she was, and he vowed that he could help her build up again all that had been destroyed in her.

Sometimes she wished that he would take her by force, so that she need not choose. It did not matter what he said; she knew that if she became his, the little pride she had left told her that the responsibility was her own. She had to become what she had once been what he believed she had been and could be again. Whether she cared or not, she had to clean herself from all that soiled her now, bury in a new life everything that had happened since she gave Helge Gram the kiss by which she betrayed her faith and her whole life up to that spring day on the Campagna.

Did she want to be his? Did she love him because he was all that she had wished to be, because his whole being awoke in her all that which she had once chosen to worship and to nurse every faculty she had thought worth developing?

The love she had looked for on byways, driven by her morbid longing and feverish restlessness would she find it here by surrendering to him, by shutting her eyes and giving herself to the one man she really trusted the one who all her instincts told her was her conscience and her just judge?

She had not been able to do it not in all these weeks. It seemed to her that she ought to try and get out by her own will from the mire into which she had descended; she wanted to feel that it was her will from the old days which had taken the lead of her shattered mind, so that she could get back ever so little of the respect and confidence in herself from before.

If she was to go on living, Gunnar was life itself to her. A few words written by him on a piece of paper, a book that brought her a message from some emotion in his soul had awakened the last smouldering longing back to life when after the death of the child she had dragged herself about like a maimed animal.

If he came now he would win her. If he would but carry her the first bit of the way, she would try to walk the rest of it herself. And as she sat there waiting for him she decided in her shrinking soul: If he comes, I shall live. If the other one comes, I must die.

And when she heard steps on the stairs, and they were not those of Gunnar, and there was a knock at the door, she bent her head and went shivering to open it for Helge Gram, instinctively feeling that she opened the door to the fate she had challenged.

She stood looking at him while he walked into the room, putting his hat on a chair. She had not acknowledged his greeting this time either.

"I knew you were in town," said he. "I came the day before yesterday from Paris. I looked up your address at the club, and meant to come and see you some day but then I saw you in the street this afternoon. I recognized your grey fur a long way off." He spoke swiftly out of breath, as it were. "Will you not say good evening to me? Are you vexed because I have come to see you?"

"Good evening, Helge," she said, taking the hand he offered her. "Will you not sit down, please?"

She sat down on the sofa. She could hear that her voice sounded calm and as usual. But in her brain she had the same delirious sensation of dread as in the afternoon.

"I wanted to come and see you," said Helge, sitting down on a chair close to her.

"It was good of you," replied Jenny. Both were silent.

"You live in Bergen now," she said. "I saw that you had got your degree. I congratulate you."

"Thank you."

There was another pause.

"You have been abroad a long time. I meant to write to you sometimes, but it never came off. Heggen lives in this house, I see."

"Yes; I wrote him to get a studio for me, but they are so dear and so difficult to find. This room has a good light, though."

"I see that you have some pictures drying."

He rose, went across the room, but returned immediately to his seat. Jenny bent her head, feeling that he did not take his eyes from her. They tried to keep up conversation. He asked about Francesca Ahlin and other acquaintances they had in common, but there were long intervals when he sat staring at her.

"Do you know that my parents are divorced?" he asked suddenly.

She nodded.

"They stayed together for our sake as long as they could, whining and creaking against each other like two millstones until they had ground everything to powder between them. There was nothing more to grind, I suppose, so the mill stopped.

"I remember when I was a boy. They did not fight, but there was something in their voices that made you think they would like to. Mother abused him and used plain talk, always ending with tears. Father kept cool and quiet, but his voice was full of hatred and so hard and cutting. I lay in my bed listening to this performance that was forced on me. I used to think what a relief it would be to put a knitting needle right through my head, in at one ear and out at the other. The voices created a physical pain in my ears and spread to the whole of my head. Well, that was the beginning they have done their duty as parents, and now it is all over.

"Hatred is an ugly thing; it makes everything ugly that comes in contact with it. I went to see my sister last summer. We have never been sympathetic, but I thought it disgusting to see her with that husband of hers. Sometimes I saw him kiss her taking his pipe out of his thick wet mouth, he kissed his wife. I saw Sophy get quite white when he touched her He is a pope in his pulpit and a libertine at home.

"As to you and me it was quite natural. I understood it afterwards that the fine, delicate threads between us should break, that they could not stand the atmosphere at home. When I had gone from you that time I regretted it, and meant to write to you, but do you know why I did not? I had a letter from my father, telling me he had been to see you and that he thought I ought to resume my relations with you. I have a superstitious objection to any advice from that quarter, so I did not write.

"All the time since we parted I have been longing for you, Jenny, dreaming of you, and recalling again and again to my memory the time I spent here with you. Do you know which place in Rome I revisited first of all yesterday? I went to Montagnola and I found our names on the cactus leaf." Jenny was sitting with clenched hands, very pale.

"You look exactly the same as then, and you have lived three years about which I don't know anything," said Helge gently. "I can scarcely realize that I am here with you again it seems as if all that has happened since we parted here in Rome were not true. Yet you belong perhaps to somebody else now?"

Jenny did not answer.

"Are you engaged?" he asked quietly.

"No."

"Jenny" Helge bent his head so that she could not see his face "all these years I have been hoping dreaming of winning you back. I have imagined that we should meet again some day and come to an understanding. You said I was the first man you had been fond of. Is my dream impossible?"

"Yes," she said.

"Heggen?"

She did not answer at once.

"I have always been jealous of Heggen," said Helge gently. "I thought he was the one, especially when I saw that you both lived here. So you are in love with each other?"

Jenny still did not answer.

"Do you love him?"

"Yes, but I will not marry him."

"Oh, I see," said Helge, in a hard voice.

"No." She bent her head, tired, smiling sadly: "I have done with love; I don't want to have anything more to do with it. I am tired, and I wish you would go, Helge."

But he did not move.

"I cannot realize now when I see you again that it is all over. I never would believe it. I have been thinking so much of it, I suppose it was my own fault. I was so timid, I never knew what was the right thing to do. Everything might have been quite different. I have often remembered the last evening I was with you in Rome, and it seemed always that such an occasion would present itself again, for I left you then because I thought it was right. Surely, that could not have been the cause of my losing you? I had never been near a woman then," he said, looking down. "I was warned by what I had seen at home. Dreams and fancies became a hell at times, but that fear was always paramount.

"I am twenty-nine and there has been no beautiful or happy experience in my life but that short spring spent with you. Can you not understand that I have never been able to separate you from my thoughts, that I love you as before? The only happiness I have known is that you gave me. I cannot let you go out of my life not now."

She got up, trembling, and he rose too. Instinctively she drew back a few steps from him: "Helge, there has been another." He stood still, looking at her.

"You say there has been another and it could have been I. I don't care; I want you all the same. I want you now because you promised me once to be mine."

Terrified, she tried to go past him, but he seized her violently in his arms. It took a few seconds for her brain to realize that he was kissing her mouth. She thought she made a resistance, but was in fact almost passive in his arms. She wanted to tell him not to, and she wanted to say who the other had been, but she could not. She would have told him about the child, but when she remembered the boy she shrank from mentioning him; she felt she must not drag her child into the disaster she knew was coming. As this thought crossed her mind she imagined she felt the dead little one caressing her, and it gave her a sensation of joy, so that her body relaxed for a second in his arms.

"You are mine mine only yes, yes, Jenny!"

She tore herself away from him and, running to the door, she called aloud for Gunnar. Helge was at her side again in an instant, taking her back in his arms.

They wrestled with each other by the door without a word. It seemed to Jenny that her life depended on her opening it and escaping into Gunnar's room, but feeling Helge close to her, stronger than she, as he held her, it seemed to her that there was no escape and at last she gave way.   In the grey morning light, he came over to her to kiss her:

"My glorious Jenny. How wonderfully beautiful you are. You are mine now, and everything will come right, will it not? Oh, I love you so.

"Are you tired? You must sleep when I have gone, and I will come to see you again at noon. Sleep soundly, my darling Jenny. Are you so tired?"

"Yes, very tired, Helge."

She was lying with her eyes half closed, looking at the pale morning light coming through the ribs of the blind.

He kissed her when he stood fully dressed, holding his hat; then he kneeled by her bed and put an arm under her shoulder:

"Thank you for tonight. Do you remember that I said those same words to you the first morning in Rome, when we were at Aventine?"

Jenny nodded on her pillow.

"One more kiss and good-night my lovely Jenny."

At the door he stopped:

"What about the front door? Is there a key, or is it one of those ordinary ones with a latch?"

"Yes, an ordinary one. You can open it all right from the inside."

She remained in bed with her eyes closed. She saw her own body as it lay under the cover, white, bare, beautiful a thing that she had flung away as she had the gloves. It was not hers any more.

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