- Published: 17 September 2019
- ISBN: 9780857982407
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 672
- RRP: $32.99
Where the Light Enters
Later, when people asked about her travels, Sophie would put it simply: the trip to Europe as a bride was hazy in her memory, but she would never forget the voyage home as a widow.
To travel from an alpine village some six thousand feet above sea level to a port on the Mediterranean was not a simple undertaking in winter with so many of the mountain passes closed, but it went without incident: first by sleigh down mountainsides on narrow, winding roads to the river valley, then by rail from Chur to Zürich where she spent the night in the Hotel Widder. On the second morning she traveled by rail to Lucerne, where she took a room at the Schweizerhof Hotel. It was small but elegant, with a comfortable bed in which she found no rest.
When the train left the station early the next day she studied the city, awash in snow flurries, swaddled in low clouds that hid the lake from view and robbed Lucerne of its charms. She could not find any way to feel about the city or the country. She could not feel much at all.
The conductor took her ticket, looked at her papers, and asked about her final destination in a ponderous, old-fashioned English. Finally he inspected Pip with a censorious eye.
“A dog that size won’t be any protection for a lady traveling alone.”
As was quickly becoming her habit, Sophie decided not to engage in the conversation and so the conductor left her in peace, on her own in a first-class compartment that would seat four passengers. It was terribly wasteful, and still she was pleased with the soft leather of the seats, the blankets and linen pillow provided for her comfort, and the solitude. With Pip on her lap she fell asleep and missed the entire journey along narrow mountain valleys and finally through a new rail tunnel that burrowed under the Saint-Gotthard alps, leaving winter behind. She woke in a sunny landscape lush with spring and awash in color.
Soon there was a new, far more talkative conductor who looked at her papers, named three cousins who had immigrated to New York City to see if she might be acquainted with them, and then launched into a lecture on the Swiss canton of Ticino, all in a stumbling but enthusiastic English: this was the River Ticino running alongside the train tracks, there was the mountain Madone, here the village Biasca, and there—he threw out a hand as elegantly as any stage actor—the house built in 1659 where his own mother was born seventy-two years ago.
In time he went away and left her to wonder about the names of the villages and mountains and rivers, about houses of stone that looked as if they might have been standing there a thousand years. Cap would have dragged her off the train to explore this landscape that seemed not a product of nature, but of a painter’s imagination: bright blue lakes bracketed by mountain cliffs rising straight to the sky, palm and cypress trees against stucco painted in the colors of candied almonds: pale green and butter yellow, powder blue and pink. Above it all the glaciers caught up the sunlight to cast it out again.
The conductor came back to tell her that they were about to cross Lake Lugano on a true marvel of modern engineering: a railroad bridge. On the other side was Chiasso and the Italian border.
For the first time in days Sophie realized she was truly hungry. She made her way to the dining car, where a somber waiter put a plate of scraps and a meaty bone down for Pip and brought Sophie one course after another, until she could eat no more. Then she dozed all the way to Genoa. The talkative conductor came once, spirited Pip away to see to his business, and brought him back full of compliments for such a personable, well-behaved animal.
With the help of first the station-master and then a hired carriage, Sophie made her way through Genoa. In the train station she had thought only of a hotel room and privacy, but now the city had her attention.
A busy seaport on the Mediterranean, yes, that was obvious. But the city seemed to be carved out of alabaster, glowing in the sunshine that wrapped itself around bell towers and columns and domed palaces, elaborate fountains and sculptures of saints and warriors. Everywhere she looked was white marble.
The effect was magnified because Genoa was hemmed in by steep hillsides all cloaked in dark cypress and evergreen, interrupted by villas—more white marble—with terraced gardens where brighter colors demanded attention.
After such a long time on a train she was struck most by the air, the stinging smell of the salt sea undercut by the advent of a spring in furious blossom: almond trees, acacia, oleander, magnolias so dense with flowers that the scent hung in the air, almost visible. Petals floated on a gusting breeze: waxy white, deep scarlet, frothing pink, crisp blue. Cap had given her instructions about this trip: Don’t forget to look around yourself. Anticipating her mind-set and what she would need.
There was such an abundance of fruit trees: she recognized apple and pear and lemon, but there were just as many that were foreign to her. Trees with leathery dark green leaves and masses of bright yellow fruit, astounding so early in the spring. Cap would have known the name. She could seek out a gardener to ask, but the very idea exhausted her. The carriage stopped on a wide, open plaza with a fountain at its center. Out in the fresh air she took a moment to stand in the sun while Pip capered around her, delighted to be free of a moving box.
“Signora.” The driver bowed from the waist. “La Piazza de Ferrari, ecco il Hotel del Mar.”
Three men appeared in the doorway. She thought they must be hotel guests and found instead that this was the hotel director and his two assistants, come to welcome her. Signore Alfonso Doria—as he introduced himself—greeted her in English, very correct and dignified while one of his assistants paid the driver.
“We had a telegram from your colleague, Dr. Zängerle,” Doria said, and bowed again, very low. “Please come, all is prepared for you and your”—he paused to look at Pip, his expression both startled and puzzled—“dog.”
The entire staff of the Hotel del Mar seemed to have nothing better to do than to make sure that she, her luggage, and her odd little dog were settled comfortably in a suite of rooms with windows that looked out over the harbor and the Mediterranean beyond.
As soon as she was alone Sophie collapsed on the bed. Pip hopped up to claim a pillow for himself and she caught him before he could put his very dusty paws on a crisp white linen slip edged with lace. When she had found a shawl and covered the pillow, he settled there with an affronted grumble.
She had wondered if it would be difficult to travel with a dog but soon realized what an asset he was. Pip was irresistible; people stopped in surprise to study this sturdy little dog not quite so big as a loaf of bread with a silky brindled coat and big ears out of proportion to his head, ears that pivoted like sails in the wind, as if they knew nothing of the dog they were attached to. A feathery tail curled over his back, arching from side to side like a metronome when he was curious. As he seemed to always be.
Strangers asked questions about his bloodlines that could not be answered. They laughed at tricks he did without prompting, searched their pockets for things to feed him: a piece of a biscuit, a bit of jerky, a half apple, all of which he accepted with good manners and quiet enthusiasm. He was above all things well behaved; he walked at her left heel no matter how diverting the scenery. An insolently staring cat left him quivering with excitement, but he held his place beside her.
Best of all, Pip drew attention to himself and away from her, a creature just as curious. Sophie Savard Verhoeven was an American, not quite twenty-nine years old, by her clothing and luggage both very well- to- do and in mourning. Her posture and bearing spoke of good breeding and education, but her complexion and features were as confounding as Pip’s outsized ears and tail like a flag.
Sophie felt eyes on her always, people trying to put a name to the color of her skin and eyes, to reconcile the curve of her lower lip and the texture of her hair.
On her first full day in Genoa she got ready to run errands and found that Signore Doria had left word asking her to see him before she set out.
When she was shown into his office he came from around his desk, all smiles and compliments and an offer: he wanted her to have not one, but two escorts for the day.
“A lady traveling alone,” he said. “Who will carry your packages? Who will protect you if the need arises? And our Ligurian dialect is especially difficult when you are negotiating prices. You are at the mercy of unscrupulous shopkeepers without someone to guide you.”
Pip was looking back and forth between them, his tail wagging double time. Clearly he saw nothing odd about this, and so Sophie went out into the city with a lady’s maid and a servant, both gray-haired, both of them in uniform, rigorously groomed, and very unwilling to look her in the eye. By the time they had reached the shipping line booking office Pip had done his job: he made them laugh, and in laughing, they relaxed.
She booked passage to New York on the Cassandra and with that act convinced herself that she was, indeed, going home. But not empty-handed. For the next few hours she wandered through narrow twisting lanes—called caruggi, her companions told her, to be avoided after dark—and over piazzas surrounded by cathedrals and palaces. Children splashed in fountains under the watchful eyes of mothers; vendors offered bouquets of flowers, roasted chestnuts, candied orange peel, biscuits flavored with anise. The smells of roasting coffee beans and baking bread made Sophie wish she had spent more time with breakfast.
With the help of her companions she bought gifts to take home with her: a crate of small oranges with thin loose peels, a large block of nougat bristling with pistachio nuts, jars of lemons preserved in olive oil, olives in brine, a round of hard cheese, braids of garlic, marzipan, candied fruit. Bolts of figured silk in jade and marigold and lapis, a tablecloth of weighty double damask with matching napkins. Leather journals with marbled endpapers. A set of carved ivory hair combs. A doll of boiled wool with soft pink cheeks, real human hair in braids around its head, dressed in colorful shawls and skirts. Skeins of silk embroidery thread and a clever roll of purple velvet embroidered with white violets, lined with felt, and populated by sewing and embroidery needles of every size along with a thread scissors with an ivory handle carved to resemble a stork.
She made the last stop of the day at a saddler’s, where Pip was measured for a harness and leash in a strong but soft leather. This did not please him in the least, but neither would he sail overboard in a high wind.
That evening she wrote a letter and telegrams, put the words into writing and rendered them permanent, and wept herself to sleep.
On her last day she read and ate and slept. She repacked her luggage with clothes fresh from the hotel laundry, bathed Pip and then to restore his good mood, took him out and let him chase seagulls on the docks.
When she finally boarded the Cassandra, Sophie was feeling more like herself than she had in months. She was a little sad to leave Genoa before she had seen the inside of a single palace or walked in any gardens, but most of all she was thankful to Signore Doria and his staff, who had made it possible for her to do as she pleased.
And still she woke in the night in a panic, listening for Cap’s labored breathing. In the echoing silence she wept a little more, and waited for sleep to claim her again.
“Promise,” Cap had whispered to her with the last of his breath. “Promise me.”
She had promised, and so she rose and ate without appetite, bathed and dressed without looking in the mirror, and went on, making a life for herself without him.
The seas were rough for much of the time, but that turned out to suit her: she had a strong stomach and poor weather meant she often had the deck to herself. She took her meals in her cabin, went out into the fresh air with Pip three or four times a day, and dozed the rest of the time away with a book on her lap. In a small notebook she wrote questions for Cap and tried to imagine his answers.
What is the world without you in it.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.
The hot touch of the city still on her, Rosalind unfastens her stockings and drops them in the bathroom sink with a handful of washing soda.
The dust of mountain flowers lay thick on the air, like perfume or boiled varnish.
I’d never have set eyes on the place if my cousin hadn’t held his wedding reception in the grounds.
The stink from the bags of rubbish piled against a wall in Scotts Road made Amelia involuntarily gag and cover her nose.
The agent, unlike the soldier, who has many friends, is surrounded by enemies, seen and unseen.
This incredible story was related by Lance Corporal Sidney Reed, who was a prisoner of the Nazis during the Second World War at Lamsdorf, Stalag VIIIB / 344, in Poland, and at the labour camp E166 at Saubsdorf quarry, Czechoslovakia.