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Authors: Ngaio Marsh

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When in Rome

BOOK: When in Rome
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When in Rome
Cast of Characters

Patrons of Mr Sebastian Mailer’s conducted tour

Mr Barnaby Grant
Author of Simon in Latium
The Baron and Baroness Van der Veghel
Miss Sophy Jason
Writer of children’s stories
Lady Braceley
The Hon. Kenneth Dorne
Her nephew
Major Hamilton Sweet
Superintendent Roderick Alleyn
CID London

Officers of the Roman Police Department

Il Questore Valdarno

Il Vice-Questore Bergarmi

Sundry members of the Questura

Dominicans in charge at S. Tommaso in Pallaria

Father Denys

Brother Dominic

Mr Sebastian Mailer
Il Cicerone Conducted Tours
Giovanni Vecchi
His assistant
Violetta
A postcard vendor
Marco
A restaurateur
A British Consul
Signor Pace
A travel agent
A Porter and sundry waiters
CHAPTER 1
Barnaby in Rome

Barnaby Grant looked at the Etruscan Bride and Bridegroom who reclined so easily on their sarcophagal couch and wondered why they had died so young and whether, as in Verona, they had died together. Their gentle lips, he thought, brushed with amusement, might easily tilt into the arrowhead smile of Apollo and Hermes. How fulfilled they were and how enigmatically alike. What signal did she give with her largish hands? How touchingly
his
hand hovered above her shoulder.

‘—from Cerveteri,’ said a guide rapidly. ‘Five hundred and thirty years before Christ.’

‘Christ!’ said a tourist on a note of exhaustion.

The party moved on. Grant stayed behind for a time and then, certain that he desired to see no more that morning, left the Villa Giulia and took a taxi to the Piazza Colonna for a glass of beer.

II

As he sat at a kerbside table in the Piazza Colonna, Barnaby thought of the Etruscan smile and listened to thunder.

The heavens boomed largely above the noon traffic but whatever lightning there might be was not evident, being masked by a black canopy of low and swollen cloud. At any moment, thought Barnaby, Marcus Aurelius’s Column will prick it and like ‘a foul bumbard’ it will shed its liquor! And then what a scene!

Before him on the table stood a glass and a bottle of beer. His mackintosh was folded over the back of his chair and on the ground, leaning against his leg, was a locked attaché case. Every so often his left hand dropped to the case and fingered it. Refreshed by this contact his mouth would take on an easier look and he would blink slowly and push away the lock of black hair that overhung his forehead.

A bit of a swine, this one, he thought. It’s been a bit of a swine.

A heavy rumbling again broke out overhead. Thunder on the left, Barnaby thought. The gods are cross with us.

He refilled his glass and looked about him.

The kerbside caffè had been crowded but now, under threat of a downpour, many customers had left and the waiters had tipped over their chairs. The tables on either side of his own, however, were still occupied: that on his right by three lowering young men whose calloused hands jealously enclosed their glasses and whose slow eyes looked sideways at their surroundings. Countrymen, Grant thought, who would have been easier in a less consequential setting and would be shocked by the amount of their bill. On his left sat a Roman couple in love. Forbidden by law to kiss in public, they gazed, clung hand-to-hand, and exchanged trembling smiles. The young man extended his forefinger and traced the unmarred excellence of his girl’s lips. They responded, quivering. Barnaby could not help watching the lovers. They were unaware of him and indeed of everything else around them, but on the first visible and livid flash of lightning, they were taken out of themselves and turned their faces towards him.

It was at this moment, appropriately as he was later to consider, that he saw, framed by their separated heads, the distant figure of an Englishman.

He knew at once that the man was English. Perhaps it was his clothes. Or, more specifically, his jacket. It was shabby and out-of-date but it had been made from West Country tweed though not, perhaps, for its present wearer. And then—the tie. Frayed and faded, grease-spotted and lumpish: there it was, scarcely recognizable, but if you were so minded, august. For the rest, his garments were dingy and nondescript. His hat, a rusty black felt, was obviously Italian. It was pulled forward and cast a shadow down to the bridge of the
nose, over a face of which the most noticeable feature was its extreme pallor. The mouth, however, was red and rather full-lipped. So dark had the noonday turned that without that brief flash, Barnaby could scarcely have seen the shadowed eyes. He felt an odd little shock within himself when he realized they were very light in colour and were fixed on him. A great crack of thunder banged out overhead. The black canopy burst and fell out of the sky in a deluge.

There was a stampede. Barnaby snatched up his raincoat, struggled into it and dragged the hood over his head. He had not paid his bill and groped for his pocket-book. The three countrymen blundered towards him and there was some sort of collision between them and the young couple. The young man broke into loud quarrelsome expostulation. Barnaby could find nothing smaller than a thousand-lire note. He turned away, looked round for a waiter and found that they had all retreated under the canvas awning. His own man saw him, made a grand-opera gesture of despair, and turned his back.

‘Aspetti,’
Barnaby shouted in phrase-book Italian waving his thousand-lire note.
‘Quanto devo pagare?’

The waiter placed his hands together as if in prayer and turned up his eyes.

‘Basta!’

‘—lasci passare—’

‘Se ne vada ora—’

‘Non desidero parlarle.’

‘Non l’ho fatto io—’

‘Vattene!’

‘Sciocchezze!’

The row between the lover and the countrymen was heating up. They now screamed into each other’s faces behind Barnaby’s back. The waiter indicated, with a multiple gesture, the heavens, the rain, his own defencelessness.

Barnaby thought: After all, I’m the one with a raincoat. Somebody crashed into his back and sent him spread-eagled across his table.

A scene of the utmost confusion followed accompanied by flashes of lightning, immediate thunder-claps and torrents of rain. Barnaby was winded and bruised. A piece of glass had cut the palm of his hand and his nose also bled. The combatants had disappeared but his
waiter, now equipped with an enormous orange-and-red umbrella, babbled over him and made ineffectual dabs at his hand. The other waiters, clustered beneath the awning, rendered a chorus to the action.
‘Poverino!’
they exclaimed. ‘What a misfortune!’

Barnaby recovered an upright posture. With one hand he dragged a handkerchief from the pocket of his raincoat and clapped it to his face. In the other he extended to the waiter his bloodied and rain-sopped thousand-lire note.

‘Here,’ he said in his basic Italian. ‘Keep the change. I require a taxi.’

The waiter ejaculated with evident pleasure. Barnaby sat down abruptly on a chair that had become a bird-bath. The waiter ludicrously inserted his umbrella into a socket in the middle of the table, said something incomprehensible, turned up the collar of his white jacket and bolted into the interior. To telephone, Barnaby hoped, for a taxi.

The Piazza Colonna was rain-possessed. A huge weight of water flooded the street and pavements and spurted off the roofs of cars as if another multiple Roman fountain had been born. Motorists stared through blurred glass and past jigging windscreen-wipers at the world outside. Except for isolated, scurrying wayfarers, the pavements were emptied. Barnaby Grant, huddled, alone and ridiculous under his orange-and-red umbrella, staunched his bloody nose. He attracted a certain incredulous attention. The waiter had disappeared and his comrades had got up among themselves one of those inscrutable Italian conversations that appear to be quarrels but very often end in backslaps and roars of laughter. Barnaby never could form the slightest notion of how long he had sat under the umbrella before he made his hideous discovery, before his left arm dangled from his shoulder and his left hand encountered—nothing.

As if it had a separate entity the hand explored, discovered only the leg of his chair, widened its search and found—nothing.

He remembered afterwards that he had been afraid to get into touch with his hand, to duck his head and look down and find a puddle of water, the iron foot of his chair-leg and again—nothing.

The experience that followed could, he afterwards supposed, be compared to the popular belief about drowning. In that an impossible flood of thoughts crowded his brain. He thought, for instance, of
how long it had taken him to write his book, of his knowledge that undoubtedly it was the best thing he had done, perhaps would ever do. He remembered his agent had once suggested that it was dangerous to write in longhand with no duplication. He remembered how isolated he was in Rome with virtually no Italian, and how he hadn’t bothered to use his introductions. He thought inaccurately of—who? Was it Sir Isaac Newton? ‘O, Diamond, Diamond, you little know what you have done!’ Above all he thought of the ineffable, the unthinkable, the atrocious boredom of what must now ensue: the awful prospect of taking steps as opposed to the numb desolation of his loss: the rock-bottom horror of the event itself which had caused a thing like a water-ram to pound in his thorax. A classic phrase stood up in his thoughts: ‘I am undone.’ And he almost cried it aloud.

Here, now, was the waiter, smirking and triumphant, and here at the kerbside, a horse-carriage with a great umbrella protecting the seats and a wary-looking driver with some sort of tarpaulin over his head.

Grant attempted to indicate his loss. He pointed to where his attaché case had been, he grimaced, he gesticulated. He groped for his phrase-book and thumbed through it.
‘Ho perduto,’
he said.
‘Ho perduto mia valigia.
Have you got it? My case?
Non trovo. Valigia.’

The waiter exclaimed and idiotically looked under the table and round about the flooded surroundings. He then bolted into cover and stood there gazing at Barnaby and shrugging with every inch of his person.

Barnaby thought: This is it. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

The driver of the horse-carriage hailed him mellifluously and seemed to implore him to make up his mind. He looked at the desolation around him and got into the carriage.

‘Consolato Britannico,’
Grant shouted. ‘O God!
Consolato Britannico.’

III

‘Now look here,’ the Consul had said, as if Barnaby Grant required the information, ‘this is a bad business, you know. It’s a bad business.’

‘You, my dear Consul, are telling me.’

‘Quite so. Quite so. Now, we’ll have to see what we can do, won’t we? My wife,’ he added, ‘is a great fan of yours. She’ll be quite concerned when she hears of this. She’s a bit of an egg-head,’ he had jokingly confided.

Barnaby had not replied. He contemplated his fellow-Briton over a handful of lint kindly provided by the consular staff and rested his bandaged left hand upon his knee.

‘Well, of course,’ the Consul continued argumentatively, ‘properly speaking it’s a matter for the police. Though I must say—however, if you’ll wait a moment I’ll just put a call through. I’ve got a personal contact—nothing like approaching at the right level, is there? Now, then.’

After a number of delays there had been a long and virtually incomprehensible conversation during which Barnaby fancied he was being described as Great Britain’s most celebrated novelist. With many pauses to refer to Barnaby himself, the Consul related at dictation speed the details of the affair and when that was over showered a number of grateful compliments into the telephone—
‘E stato molto gentile—Grazie, Molto grazie, Signore,’
which even poor Barnaby could understand.

The Consul replaced the receiver and pulled a grimace. ‘Not much joy from
that
quarter,’ he said. Barnaby swallowed and felt sick.

He was assured that everything that could be done, would be done, but, the Consul pointed out, they hadn’t much to go on, had they? Still, he added more brightly, there was always the chance that Barnaby might be blackmailed.

‘Blackmailed?’

‘Well, you see, whoever took the case probably expected, if not a haul of valuables, or cash, something in the nature of documents for the recovery of which a reward would be offered and a haggling basis thus set up.
Blackmail,’
said the Consul, ‘was not, of course, the right word.
Ransom
would be more appropriate. Although…’ He was a man of broken sentences and he left this one suspended in an atmosphere of extreme discomfort.

‘Then I should advertise and offer a reward?’

‘Certainly. Certainly. We’ll get something worked out. We’ll just give my secretary the details in English and she’ll translate and see to the insertions.’

‘I’m being a trouble,’ said the wretched Barnaby.

‘We’re used to it,’ the Consul sighed. ‘Your name and London address were on the manuscript, you said, but the case was locked. Not, of course, that
that
amounts to anything.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘You are staying at—?’

‘The Pensione Gallico.’

‘Ah yes. Have you the telephone number?’

‘Yes—I think so—somewhere about me.’

Barnaby fished distractedly in his breast pocket, pulled out his note-case, passport and two envelopes which fell on the desk, face downwards. He had scribbled the Pensione Gallico address and telephone number on the back of one of them.

‘That’s it,’ he said and slid the envelope across to the Consul, who was already observant of its august crest.

‘Ah—yes. Thank you.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘Done your duty and signed the book, I see,’ he said.

‘What? Oh—that. Well, no, actually,’ Barnaby mumbled. ‘It’s—er—some sort of luncheon. Tomorrow. I mustn’t take up any more of your time. I’m enormously grateful.’

The Consul, beaming and expanding, stretched his arm across the desk and made a fin of his hand. ‘No, no, no. Very glad you came to us. I feel pretty confident, all things considered.
Nil desperandum
, you know,
nil desperandum.
Rise above!’

But it wasn’t possible to rise very far above his loss as two days trickled by and there was no response to advertisements and nothing came of a long language-haltered interview with a beautiful representative of the Questura. He attended his Embassy luncheon and tried to react appropriately to ambassadorial commiseration and concern. But for most of the time he sat on the roof-garden of the Pensione Gallico among potted geraniums and flights of swallows. His bedroom had a french window opening on to a neglected corner of this garden and there he waited and listened in agony for every telephone call within. From time to time he half-faced the awful notion of re-writing the hundred thousand words of his novel but the prospect made him physically as well as emotionally sick as he turned away from it.

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