She Sat the Whole Time Cold

Jul, 2019

The castle in Stockholm was cold. Descartes had died here in 1650, supposedly freezing to death. Queen Kristina, whom he had come to tutor, would abdicate and flee to Rome. In 1891, when Victoria arrived from her native Germany, the old castle had burned. A new palace had been built in its place, floor after floor of apartments and reception rooms, all of them cold. She too should never have come. She coughed all the time.

Born in 1862, she was the daughter of Fredrik I, Grand Duke of Baden. Royals and aristocrats visited her parents’ castle in Karlsruhe, but also writers, artists, and musicians (she once turned the sheet music for Liszt). Her romance with a young Russian nobleman ended when the tsar made it known that he opposed marriages between cousins. Her mother’s hopes that she would marry the future Kaiser, another cousin, also came to naught. Now it was Bismarck who said no. Like the tsar, he did not believe in cousin marriages, but he also questioned Victoria’s constitution, notably that racking cough, which had plagued her long before she came to Sweden. That, they said, was the end of that. Well, not quite.

When Gustaf, the crown prince of Sweden, came courting, she was only 19 years old. Studying her through his pince-nez, he was 24, tall and gangly, his manners stiff. This time no one said no. Victoria was the great granddaughter of Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden, so in a sense she would only be coming home. This same great grandfather had been dethroned and exiled after losing Finland to Russia in 1809, but the old Vasa blood still coursed through her veins, and was it not time to forget and move on? She was not considered beautiful (her face was much too strong for that), but the Swedish newspapers made the most of her large blue-gray eyes, her superb shoulders, and her tightly knit frame. Her iron will, inherited from her mother, soon made itself known, not least among her servants, some of whom trembled at the mere sound of her voice and grew to hate her.

In rapid succession she gave birth to three sons. The youngest, Erik, suffered from epilepsy, brought on, or so it was thought, by medications she took for her lungs. In search of a warmer climate, she left with Gustaf for Egypt. Joining them was Gustaf’s aide-de-camp, Baron Blixen von Finecke, witty and virile, as much at ease in a drawing room as he was in the desert (and yes, related to Bror, Karen Blixen’s husband). When not hunting hyenas, Gustaf focused on archaeology, while Blixen focused on Victoria, carrying her camera equipment, the two of them processing films in one of the tents. Exactly what passed between them is unclear, but Blixen was not allowed to join her when she returned to Egypt the following year. Gustaf confronted her and wrote about it to his father. “She sat the whole time silent and cold, hardly shed a single tear, but asked my forgiveness and confessed to everything.” Why do I shudder when I read his words? Not just for her but also for him.

In 1892 she met Axel Munthe, a Swedish doctor of lowly birth, his father a small-town pharmacist. Hardly dashing, he dressed more like an artist than a doctor, his probing glance concealed behind eyeglasses tinged blue. He had studied medicine in Paris, where he worked under Charcot, the famous neurologist, whose research on hysteria inspired August Strindberg. He now ran a clinic in Rome, overlooking the Piazza di Spagna, where he treated wealthy women with illnesses that had no name (he actually invented one – “colitis” – harmless enough not to mean very much). “He’s an evil man,” one woman wrote. “I think him capable of anything, surely he’s a hypnotist too.” Still, most women yielded to his powers – he himself called them “almost demonic” and acknowledged the temptation to misuse them. Not wearing gloves (careless indeed), he drove around the city in a pony cart, always with his dogs beside him. When Victoria invited him to a dinner she gave in Rome, he arrived half an hour late, well after the soup and the fish had been served. Was it by design, making it clear that her status as crown princess did not impress him? Or was he late because of his work at his other clinic, this one in Travestere, where he treated the Roman poor for free? Either way, when she asked him to examine her, he consented.

In the years to come, the two of them would meet on Capri, where he built his San Michele, a villa high above the Bay of Naples. One photograph shows Victoria stepping out of a boat in the Marina Grande, a woman in black, small and demure, looking up at the people on the quay, a softness about her that I haven’t noticed before. The people in the boat and on the quay watch her every step – word was she was better loved on Capri than she ever was in Sweden. Instead of rest and medications, Munthe prescribed fresh air and steep climbs up narrow, stony ravines. In the evenings, the sun sinking into the sea below, she played the piano, while he sang Schubert, his baritone floating through the loggias, past the Medusa head and the sphinx, which he claimed had belonged to Tiberius, past the vineyards and the cypresses with roses and honeysuckle circling their trunks. Were they Jean and Miss Julie, the valet and the daughter of the count, had Strindberg allowed them to escape together? If so, where was Gustaf in all this? I think of him as the absent father, too powerful to be ignored, a constant reminder that all this will not end well. “I’m trying to help her be Swedish,” Munthe wrote. “We both know she’s not.”

Gustaf would order all letters between Victoria and himself to be burned. Munthe promised to write her biography but never did. Even if he had, would he have told the truth? In a preface to his book on San Michele, in which he never mentions her, he states that “some of the scenes are laid on the ill-defined borderland between the real and the unreal.” His colleagues in Sweden called him a charlatan, questioning his use of hypnotism and his remarkable sway over the crown princess, who seemed all too eager to leave Sweden for Capri. No doubt Munthe was a social climber, who craved recognition while professing to despise the very people that might grant it. When weighing whether to become Victoria’s physician, he was well aware of the cachet and the “advertisement” it would bring. But unlike Jean, he did not care to chop off the necks of small birds. In his book he writes about his feud with the island butcher, who blinded quail with red-hot needles, which made them sing until they died, thus luring thousands of birds to the butcher’s nets. And Victoria? Did she, as Munthe claimed, suffer from “old bad blood”? Did she abase herself when she pleaded for his time? “I love you, darling, I want to be near you, see you – if only for the shortest while.” Accustomed to giving orders, did she find relief in following his? “A difficult patient,” he wrote. “But now she obeys.”

In 1907, a few months before Victoria became queen, Munthe married a much younger Englishwoman, calling it a marriage of convenience (certainly to him, as his eyesight was deteriorating). Still, it was not his marriage but the First World War that caused a rift between Victoria and him, albeit temporary. He became a British citizen and served with the Red Cross in France, while her allegiance was to Germany and the Kaiser. When King Gustaf gave his famous speech to the Swedish farmers who marched for a stronger defense, Victoria could be glimpsed behind one of the palace windows. She wanted Sweden to fight with Germany, but Gustaf’s diplomacy prevailed and Sweden remained neutral. Throughout the war, she kept visiting her family in the castle in Karlsruhe, raising eyebrows in Sweden, perhaps in Germany too. Appointed Honorary Colonel of the German army, she was photographed riding sidesaddle on a long-legged Prussian horse. She wears a uniform and a picket helmet, her back as straight as ever, whale bones gripping her flesh. In the fall of 1918, after the war ended, she was caught in the socialist revolution, fleeing from castle to castle, machine guns blocking her retreat. Even as Erik, her youngest son, fell ill and died from the Spanish influenza, she did not come to his side, blaming the risk of contagion. She did not return to Sweden until the spring of 1919. By then Munthe had spent his last winter with his wife, who banned him from her life after she found him kissing the kitchen maid. Gustaf, for his part, had sought company elsewhere, his homosexuality no longer a secret. Victoria still stood when he entered the room.

Victoria died in Rome in 1930, coughing herself to death. Both Gustaf and Munthe were present. Munthe, or so he would imply, gave her morphin to shorten her pain. He would spend much of his remaining life in one of the apartments in the palace in Stockholm. Suffering the indignities of blindness and old age, scraps of food stuck in his unkempt beard, he dressed so poorly that the royal guard was reluctant to let him pass. Gustaf, when not following the work of his government, hunted, embroidered, and played tennis, his game as impeccable as his pleated white pants. Summers Munthe would join him at Solliden, the villa Victoria had built on an island in the Baltic Sea, meant to resemble San Michele and the only place where she felt she could breathe. In one photograph, Gustaf sits so as not to tower over Munthe — the two men, who had so disliked each other, now trapped in a friendship they both called dull. If they talked at all, did they talk about her?

What would Strindberg have made of that?




by Birgitta Hjalmarson

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.

In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.

From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.

The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.

While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.

On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.

The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.

To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.

Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.

Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.

Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.

After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.

The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.

From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.

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