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There Should Have Been Roses by Jens Peter Jacobsen

Translated from the Danish By Anna Grabow


There should have been roses

Of the large, pale yellow ones.

And they should hang in abundant clusters over the garden-wall, scattering their tender leaves carelessly down into the wagon-tracks on the road: a distinguished glimmer of all the exuberant wealth of flowers within.

And they should have the delicate, fleeting fragrance of roses, which cannot be seized and is like that of unknown fruits of which the senses tell legends in their dreams.

Or should they have been red, the roses?


They might be of the small, round, hardy roses, and they would have to hang down in slender twining branches with smooth leaves, red and fresh, and like a salutation or a kiss thrown to the wanderer, who is walking, tired and dusty, in the middle of the road, glad that he now is only half a mile from Rome.

Of what may he be thinking? What may be his life?

And now the houses hide him, they hide everything on that side. They hide one another and the road and the city, but on the other side there is still a distant view. There the road swings in an indolent, slow curve down toward the river, down toward the mournful bridge. And behind this lies the immense Campagna. The gray and the green of such large plains. ... It is as if the weariness of many tedious miles rose out of them and settled with a heavy weight upon one, and made one feel lonely and forsaken, and filled one with desires and yearning. So it is much better that one should take one's ease here in a corner between high garden-walls, where the air lies tepid and soft and still—to sit on the sunny side, where a bench curves into a niche of the wall, to sit there end gaze upon the shimmering green acanthus in the roadside ditches, upon the silver-spotted thistles, and the pale-yellow autumn flowers.

The roses should have been on the long gray wall opposite, a wall full of lizard holes and chinks with withered grass; and they should have peeped out at the very spot where the long, monotonous flatness is broken by a large, swelling basket of beautiful old wrought iron, a latticed extension, which forms a spacious balcony, reaching higher than the breast. It must have been refreshing to go up there when one was weary of the enclosed garden.

And this they often were.

They hated the magnificent old villa, which is said to be within, with its marble stair-cases and its tapestries of coarse weave; and the ancient trees with their proud large crowns, pines and laurels, ashes, cypresses, and oaks. During all the period of their growth they were hated with the hatred which restless hearts feel for that which is commonplace, trivial, uneventful, for that which stands still and therefore seems hostile.

But from the balcony one could at least range outside with one's eyes, and that is why they stood there, one generation after the other, and all stared into the distance, each one with pro and each one with his con. Arms adorned with golden bracelets have lain on the edge of the iron railing and many a silk-covered knee has pressed against the black arabesques, the while colored ribbons waved from all its points as signals of love and rendezvous. Heavy, pregnant housewives have also stood here and sent impossible messages out into the distance. Large, opulent, deserted women, pale as hatred . . . could one but kill with a thought or open hell with a wish! . . . Women and men! It is always women and men, even these emaciated white virgin souls which press against the black latticework like a flock of lost doves and cry out, “Take us!” to imagined, noble birds of prey.

One might imagine a proverbe here.

The scenery would be very suitable for a proverbe.

The wall there, just as it is; only the road would have to be wider and expand into a circular space. In its center there would have to be an old, modest fountain of yellowish tuff and with a bowl of broken porphyry. As figure for the fountain a dolphin with a broken-off tail, and one of the nostrils stopped up. From the other the fine jet of water rises. On one side of the fountain a semicircular bench of tuff and terracotta.

The loose, grayish white dust; the reddish, molded stone, the hewn, yellowish, porous tuff; the dark, polished porphyry, gleaming with moisture, and the living, tiny, silvery jet of water: material and colors harmonize rather well.

The characters: two pages.

Not of a definite, historical period, for the pages of reality in no way correspond with the pages of the ideal. The pages here, however, are pages such as dream in pictures and books. Accordingly it is merely the costume which has a historical effect.

The actress who is to represent the youngest of the pages wears thin silk which clings closely and is pale-blue, and has heraldic lilies of the palest gold woven into it. This and as much lace as can possibly be employed are the most distinctive feature of the costume. It does not aim at any definite century, but seeks to emphasize the youthful voluptuousness of the figure, the magnificent blond hair, and the clear complexion.

She is married, but it lasted only a year and a half, when she was divorced from her husband, and she is said to have acted in anything but a proper fashion towards him. And that may well be, but it is impossible to imagine anything more innocent in appearance than she. That is to say, it is not the gracious elemental innocence which has such attractive qualities; but it is rather the cultivated, mature innocence, in which no one can be mistaken, and which goes straight to the heart. It captivates one with all the power which something that has reached completion only can have.

The second actress in the proverbe is slender and melancholy. She is unmarried and has no past, absolutely none. There is no one who knows the least thing about her. Yet these finely delineated, almost lean limbs, and these amber-pale, regular features are vocal. The face is shaded by raven-black curls, and borne on a strong masculine neck. Its mocking smile, in which there is also hungry desire, allures. The eyes are unfathomable and their depths are as soft and luminous as the dark petals in the flower of the pansy.

The costume is of pale-yellow, in the manner of a corselet with wide, up-and-down stripes, a stiff ruff and buttons of topaz. There is a narrow frilled stripe on the edge of the collar, and also on the close-fitting sleeves. The trunks are short, wide-slashed, and of a dead-green color with pale purple in the slashes. The hose is gray.—Those of the blue page, of course, are pure white.—Both wear barrets.

Such is their appearance.

And now the yellow one is standing up on the balcony, leaning over the edge, the while the blue is sitting on the bench down by the fountain, comfortably leaning back, with his ring-covered hands clasped around one knee. He stares dreamily out upon the Campagna.

Now he speaks:

“No, nothing exists in the world but women!—I don't understand it ... there must be a magic in the lines out of which they are created, merely when I see them pass: Isaura, Rosamond, and Donna Lisa, and the others. When I see how their garment clings around their figure and how it drapes as they walk, it is as if my heart drank the blood out of all my arteries, and left my head empty and without thoughts and my limbs trembling and without strength. It is as though my whole being were gathered into a single, tremulous, uneasy breath of desire. What is it? Why is it? It is as if happiness went invisibly past my door, and I had to snatch it and hold it close, and make it my own. It is so wonderful—and yet I cannot seize it, for I cannot see it.”

Then the other page speaks from his balcony:

“And if now you sat at her feet, Lorenzo, and lost in her thoughts she had forgotten why she had called you, and you sat silent and waiting, and her lovely face were bent over you further from you in the clouds of its dreams than the star in the heavens, and yet so near you that every expression was surrendered to your admiration, every beauty-engendered line, every tint of the skin in its white stillness as well as in its soft rosy glow—would it not then be as if she who is sitting there belonged to another world than the one in which you kneel in adoration! Would it not be as if hers were another world, as if another world surrounded her, in which her festively garbed thoughts are going out to meet some goal which is unknown to you? Her love is far away from all that is yours, from your world, from everything. She dreams of far distances and her desires are of far distances. And it seems as if not the slightest space could be found for you in her thoughts, however ardently you might desire to sacrifice yourself for her, your life, your all, to the end that that might be between her and you which is hardly a faint glimmer of companionship, much less a belonging together.”

“Yes, you know that it is thus. But. . . .” Now a greenish-yellow lizard runs along the edge of the balcony. It stops and looks about The tail moves. . . .

If one could only find a stone. . .

Look out, my four-legged friend.

No, you cannot hit them, they hear the stone long before it reaches them. Anyhow he got frightened.

But the pages disappeared at the same moment.

The blue one had been sitting there so prettily. And in her eyes lay a yearning which was genuine and unconscious and in her movements a nervousness that was full of presentiment. Around her mouth was a faint expression of pain, when she spoke, and even more when she listened to the soft, somewhat low voice of the yellow page, which spoke to her from the balcony in words that were provocative and at the same time caressing, that had a note of mockery and a note of sympathy.

And doesn't it seem now as if both were still here!

They are there, and have carried on the action of the proverbe, while they were gone. They have spoken of that vague young love which never finds peace but unceasingly flits through all the lands of foreboding and through all the heavens of hope; this love that is dying to satisfy itself in the powerful, fervent glow of a single great emotion! Of this they spoke; the younger one in bitter complaint, the elder one with regretful tenderness. Now the latter said—the yellow one to the blue—that he should not so impatiently demand the love of a woman to capture him and hold him bound.

“For believe me,” he said, “the love that you will find in the clasp of two white arms, with two eyes as your immediate heaven and the certain bliss of two lips—this love lies nigh unto the earth and unto the dust. It has exchanged the eternal freedom of dreams for a happiness which is measured by hours and which hourly grows older. For even if it always grows young again, yet each time it loses one of the rays which in a halo surround the eternal youth of dreams. No, you are happy.”

“No, you are happy,” answered the blue one, “I would give a world, were I as you are.”

And the blue one rises, and begins to walk down the road to the Campagna, and the yellow one looks after him with a sad smile and says to himself: “No, he is happy!”

But far down the road the blue one turns round once more toward the balcony, and raising his barret calls: “No, you are happy!”

* * *

There should have been roses.

And now a breath of wind might come and shake a rain of rose-leaves from the laden branches, and whirl them after the departing page.


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