The Villa on the Hill
About two hundred miles south of Stockholm, the elongated fjord of Braviken cuts deeply into the Baltic coastline of Sweden. Its northern shore rises abruptly into the forested mountain region of Kolmarden, famous for its awesome beauty, notorious for its legendary history of hijacking and robbery. In the middle of this range an open marble quarry shines from the distance like a drift of snow, though the marble broken from this northern rock is sea-green, blotched, and veined. Here the fjord widens into the bay of Swinesund. And along its western shore the Svensksund acres stretched far back into the country.
The recorded history of this land dates back to the Vikings. Then the sea covered miles of what are now fields and pastures. Deep in the soil archeologists have unearthed artifacts dating back to the Scandinavian stone and bronze ages.
In the year 1772, during one of the many wars between Sweden and Russia, the enemy overran the Baltic coast, burning and ransacking. The original manor house of Svensksund fell victim to the pillage and was burned to the ground. Only the wide marble stairway remained, descending to an avenue of ancient, immense horse chestnut trees.
Flanking the old manor house were two annexes, and these build ings miraculously escaped the fire. The owners took up residence in the right one, adding new wings as the family expanded. This became known as the Big House, and there, nearly a hundred years later, my father, Sixten Flach, was born.
My mother, Hillevid Neergaard, was Danish. But her mother, Wendela, came from the branch of the Flach family that lived in the western part of Sweden, and in the spring of 1890 she took her debutante daughter on a tour to visit them all.
This was an era of genuine sociability. The country houses, perennially prepared for invasions of house guests winter and summer, were large and comfortable. And thus, on a fine spring day, Hillevid came to Svensksund for the first time. She found a spacious rambling house with many wings, some twenty rooms and attics con nected by steps, stairways, and passages. In front of the house was a round flower garden not yet in bloom, with tiny fancy fences sur rounding each bed. Beside the glassed-in veranda stood a weeping ash under whose tentlike branches on warm summer days after-dinner coffee was served. A graveled terrace ran to the edge of a steep escarpment more than a hundred feet above the pasturelands below. Beyond, the shoreline of the bay merged into stands of waving reeds. Spruce-clad inlets dotted the bay, and then there was Kolmarden, the dark-green backdrop of the silvery fjord, a vast panorama of land and water.
Life at Svensksund was one of ease without elegance, thrift and practicality without fuss. Inside, the house had an air of slight stuffi ness with its white-scrubbed plank floors and its white antimacassars adorning every one of the solidly comfortable chairs and sofas. Grandfather Sixten walked with a cane. He had a wart on the side of his nose, and a prominent benign tumor displaced his starched white collar. His white beard waggled when he spoke. Less visible was the high court title bestowed on him by the king, for he bore it without pretention.
Grandmother Augusta was short and roly-poly, almost as broad as she was tall. She wore her gray hair slicked back into a flat pancake on top of which perched a fanciful cap of white lace and black velvet ribbons.
Sixten, the second son, ran the estate while Jana, the only daughter, held the reins of the household in her capable hands. And the old people were left well cared for and free to follow their own whims.
The difference between the solid living at Svensksund and the carefree gaiety of her life in Copenhagen must have struck Hillevid forcefully. Less dramatic were her feelings about Sixten. She liked him well enough, but she was not deeply involved with him. And for a long time the three-week visit to Svensksund remained in her mem ory as an episode of pleasant but minor interest, suffused with I lie rise and glow of Sixten's as yet unspoken adoration. But a year later, when my parents became engaged, my mother was in love with another man.
Hillevid was still a small girl when her father died of dysentery while on a holiday with his wife in Italy. The young widow took the loss of her husband with fortitude. She refused to make things easy for herself by selling the estate and going to live with her four sons and Hillevid in the capital. With her means and position it would have been a life of unchallenged ease and security. But Wendela had different notions. With an iron hand and a rich endowment of organizational skill, she proceeded to run the estate, beautiful Faarevejle on Langeland, a small island within Denmark's inland seas, where the castle-like white house stood surrounded by vast lawns and beautiful trees. It was her duty, she felt, to preserve the ancestral home and, when the time was right, hand it on to her eldest son in the same condition in which it had been left to her. And, eventually, she did. To her, duty was the supreme virtue.
Grandmaman Wendela lived up to her idea of noblesse oblige with great success. She had character, acumen, and will, but above all she had style. To define her set of values as morality would be to rob them of a certain undefinable quality, a kind of elan. She must have been strikingly handsome when the vivid coloring of youth still enhanced her finely molded features. In old age her face had great distinction. As I remember her, she wore her silvery hair artfully arranged in a pompadour with sausages of precise curls built into a tapering tower. Her gray eyes did not always have the warmth that animated them when she was emotionally stirred. A finely curved nose and a haughty mouth always slightly puckered com pleted the portrait. She never laughed outright from the heart, although she by no means lacked the Flach family's sense of humor. When occasionally she allowed it to shine upon us, she expected us always to laugh heartily while she herself indulged in ladylike chuckles.
No one had so straight a back as Grandmaman. When she prayed she bent only her head; when she cried she sat bolt upright and dabbed her eyes. She smoked—one Havana cigar every day after dinner. Straight as a ramrod, she walked up and down the drawing room, puffing elegantly. She indulged openly only en famille. When there was company she withdrew to her own rooms, later to reappear without apology in a highly affable frame of mind.
It was no surprise that Grandmaman was supremely successful in handling both her sons and the estate. All her transactions were conducted with scrupulous honesty, and inexhaustible resourcefulness soon became her trademark. She was inordinately proud of her four sons. Hillevid, the youngest and the only girl, she largely ignored, leaving her in the care of governesses.
Grandmaman packed her belongings and with her daughter left Faarevejle to establish residence in Copenhagen. In a large apartment in an elegant neighborhood close to the royal palace she lived and entertained according to her station. She presented her daughter at court, and as a debutante the young girl took a lively part in the social events of the winter season. By contrast to her mother, Hillevid was a mousy-looking young thing with features of no particular distinction and thin straight hair. Indeed, she might easily have been entirely overlooked had it not been for her vivacity. After she left school discipline and governesses behind her, her vitality blossomed, illuminating and enhancing her best features, the sensitive mouth with its even white teeth so frequently shining in laughter, the straight nose, the willowy figure, the firm breasts. Hillevid's animation and wit soon earned her popularity among the fashionable set, eclipsing even that of her mother. She was eighteen and enjoying life with her whole heart. Copenhagen was a capital renowned for its gay social life, its lighthearted fun and frivolities. She became the intimate friend of Crown Prince Frederik's four daughters, Louise, Ingeborg, Dagmar and Thyra. An especially warm attachment developed between her and Louise, who eventually became the godmother of Hillevid's first child, and endowed the baby, together with her name, with a soft pink and white crocheted coverlet forever considered too precious to be used. Unlike many friendships with persons in high places, this one endured warmly and intimately until the princess's death after too short a life of sadness and disillusionment. Twenty three years later, the child, by lucky chance coming in contact with many of these same people was to benefit greatly from the fact that she was Hillevid Neergaard's daughter.
It was at this time that Hillevid met Axel Lerche. Wendela's announcement of her intention to remarry fell upon Hillevid like a bombshell and brought her the first grave crisis of her life. A former cavalry officer (though not of noble birth, Wendela's intended was a man of utmost gentility and distinctly unmartial in appearance with his slight frame, drooping fair moustache, and mild blue eyes. He was also a Catholic.
Hillevid looked upon her mother's betrothal as a personal affront. Never, she vowed, would she sit there and be witness to this preposterous love affair. She must get away. But how? She had no private means - in those days young girls of good family did not work. In vain she waited for Axel Lerche to declare himself. In the course of the season he had shown himself far from indifferent to her. They had danced together at every ball, he had always claimed the first waltz and the cotillion, and sometimes also a dance in between. They had skated together on the moat, a popular pastime of the young set in those days. They had often met in his sister's apartment, above the one Hillevid shared with her mother. And now, suddenly, she realized she was deeply in love. He, he alone, could save her from the abominable situation in which she found herself. Into every meeting with Axel she poured her most ardent unspoken wish that he propose, now, soon. But he did not. Day followed day and he said nothing—nothing—nothing!
Wendela's wedding was set for September. Meanwhile, there was the wedding of Ebbe, Hillevid's brother. Hillevid was to be one of the bridesmaids. And, suddenly, she thought of Sixten. He would be there, he loved her, he wanted her, but he was so much older than she – fourteen years! Still, Sixten loomed large in her mind as a lifesaver, a protector, an escape. Too late Axel Lerche spoke. He followed Hillevid to Svensksund, carrying to her his heart, trying to persuade her to change her mind and come to him. Too late. For the sake of her firstborn, Hillevid made the agonizing choice for the three of them.
My father adored my mother, and he built for her a dream house where he planned they would live together in great happiness. He put into it all that his fond heart could devise to please her, all he could design for her comfort and pleasure.
A winding road led from the Big House a mile and half through parklike woodland of spruce and larch and pine trees to the Villa on the hill. At this height the bay and the fjord spread far beneath, unobstructed by trees. Below, the flat hatlike crowns of the Scotch pines that dung to the shelves of the seaward cliff accurately mea sured the rise of the hill. But on the south and west sides the hill smoothed out into a gradual slope. In the far distance it opened upon a landscape of square fields, with little houses tucked among islands of rock and green growth as far as the eye could see. Thus Father laid at Mother's feet all that he possessed.
On a solid foundation of granite rock Father built the house of dry fragrant wood. Overlapping wooden shingles covered walls and roof. The roof was steep and straddled several gables that jutted upward with wonderful irregularity. The house, all of it stained a deep brown, blended with unobtrusive modesty into its surroundings of tall feathery evergreens.
On a bright cold January day, in a warm room facing south of the Villa on the hill, Mother gave birth to me, and named me for her friend Louise.
Her second pregnancy was difficult, and a toxic condition forced her to spend many months miserably in bed.
Ebba was a small and sickly baby. She was also anemic. While I had reddish-blond hair, hers was dark brown, and so were her eyes. I was hearty and strong, a child, Mother said, perpetually happy for no other reason than that I was born that way. Stubborn and self- willed, I also was given to short-tempered flare-ups sudden thunder and lightning, come and gone, leaving the sky cloudless. Ebba, on the other hand, possessed the power of resistance so often fused into the character of the physically weak.
My memories of our early childhood are like leaves on a tree, each one complete and separate. The Swiss bonne, buxom, soft, and loving, who smelled of soap and clean linen, cared for us for two and a half years and spoke with us always in French. Ebba and I cried when she left.
Father appeared to me like a giant, long of leg and strong of body. His image was incomplete without the gold chain draped across his vest, ending at a flat gold watch slipped into his tiny vest pocket.
The pressure of his broad thumbnail on a certain tiny spot on the watch could make the lid spring open. When I became fully aware of him as my father, his reddish hair was already thinning and lines were beginning to dig into his ruddy face. I loved watching him shave with his straight razor, and I was especially intrigued by the a pplication afterward of a transparent harness to train the tips of his full blond moustache at a jaunty upward angle.
Kindness filled his steel-blue, slightly nearsighted eyes. He had inherited his mother's self-reliance and hardihood. Father's voice was strong, and when he was aroused it was heard throughout the house. But his quickly flaring temper flickered out almost as soon as it burst into flame, for he was basically a gentle man. He was plag ued by only two major complaints: the pastor, whom he conside red a meek fool with an irritating lisp, hardly worth listening to on rare occasions he found himself obliged to appear with his lily in the parish church, and the weather, which God Almighty regulated exactly as the crops required.
With tact and goodwill my parents pursued their daily duties in house and in the field. There was no disharmony. Had someone told me then that their marriage had once been shaken by a very grave crisis, I would not have believed it. And this mutually encom passed attitude was important and helpful to them both.
It would not have been compatible with Mother's character to la nguish in regret over lost dreams. She had inherited Grandmaman Wendela's resolution and pride in sufficient measure to carry her through the difficulty. Whatever she lost in renouncing her first love w as restored to her in the love of her daughters. And this love became her life's principal mainstay, sublimated into an emotion into which she injected enough intelligent control to save herself and us from the evils of dotage. Whatever mistakes she may have com mitted in the name of motherhood, she achieved a rare proportion and perspective in her efforts to bring up her daughters to become self-r eliant and independent individuals. And this impulse, shared by my father, became the focal point of their own salvation—although there may have been occasions later when the effectiveness of their efforts took them by surprise.
"Your wills grow in the forest," Mother would tell us when, head-s trong and self-willed, we insisted on having our own way.
The idea fascinated me. We clamored for evidence. She took us into the forest and showed us two sapling spruces standing along the path. She named the smaller one Ebba and the larger Louise. Imagine having one's will growing in the forest! Thereafter we never passed those trees without noting how much they had grown.
My lively imagination had no difficulty creating a fanciful world peopled with mythic beings. I named them Bebborna. They were black and dressed in pale blue and pink frocks. How this distinction of skin color happened is a mystery, for no countries on earth have less connection with black people than the Scandinavian, either his torically or geographically.
Bebborna were an intimate part of the household, the same as I was. I communicated with them by pantomime, which on occasion turned into quite good acting with apt monologue thrown in.
Once or twice a month Mother took us with her to town for shop ping by horse-drawn carriage, a trip of ten miles each way. We traveled mostly in the landau, which we liked because the top was nearly always down and we had a free view of all we passed. In bad weather the coupe was used, a tight compartment with light-gray upholstery that smelled musty. It had windows that one pushed down to open and pulled up with straps to close, and they rattled. Best of all we liked to ride in the large open sleigh in the winter, with the coachman perched at the rear of the passengers on a bicycle seat. A large white net was draped over the horses' rumps and on to the front of the sleigh to prevent the hard lumps of snow thrown up by the horses' hoofs from hitting us in the face. We sat covered with robes, our feet tucked warmly into bags of fur. And the bells jingled rhythmically in the frosty air.
Naturally, the Bebborna were brought along. In the crowded shops and on the busy streets their invisibility was a decided con venience, and they were a good influence on me. It was clearly up to me, for instance, to show them how one yields the way to grownups, how one opens the door, how one curtsies.
Father insisted that his daughters be brought up hardy and fearless. He scorned effeminate behaviors. Courage and pluck should be natural ingredients in any character. He placed great emphasis on outdoor activities, and so on toboggans, skis, skates, and horses we learned our first lessons of good sportsmanship. We learned to travel cross-country on long slim skis on snow that speedily lost the softness caused by the last snowfall and formed a crust. Upon the c lean, clear ice of the bay and the fjord, behind frisky, sharp-shod h orses or leaning sideways against a bulging sail, we shot across the gleaming blue-green surface, experiencing the thrills of speed and practicing the skills of balance.
A lively social life was traditional among the people who lived on the estates scattered around the countryside. Mother adored enter taining. She had a flair for running a big country household and for arranging dinner parties. With a masterly hand she trained her help, who recognized her aptitude for guiding them and responded by taking the same pride as she did in a program well executed. Like all people who do well in their chosen work, she delighted in running her house.
Long before Mother's arrival upon the scene, Father had formed a close friendship with Prince Carl, one of the king's sons, primarily developed out of their common interests, the land, agriculture, hunt ing. Prince Carl was tall and lanky. His chiseled features, the eagle nose, the classic mouth under a well-groomed moustache, were of the kind a sculptor might dream of as a model. A premature deafness may have been the reason for his very soft and peculiarly hollow voice. The prince visited the Villa on two occasions. I can remem ber no special fuss arising from his presence in the house, nothing beyond the usual entertainments when there was company. The prince was of course given the best guestroom, and his valet lodged next door. While the maid was making up his room one morning, I walked in and noted the large, slightly rumpled pillows where his head had rested. He must have slept very comfortably in that large clean bed on Mother's best sheets. He was taller than Father, and he did not speak like other people, and in my mind all this became synonymous with a king's son.
At night there was a dinner party. Ebba and I, dressed in our best frocks, were ushered into the dining room just after the dessert had been served. The doors opened upon twenty or more people in festive dress seated around the table covered with the gleaming white cloth. Candles glowed all along the center of the table and in the chandelier above, and their light was reflected in the sparkling crystal glasses. People spoke with us, kissed us, fussed over us. But our eyes were fastened upon the beautiful glitter and our ears heard nothing but the music of the many voices.
On a dark October day in 1902, Grandfather Sixten died. For the first time I became conscious of the possibility that somebody who had been there might suddenly not be there any more. This I did not connect with death, although I knew the word. What im pressed me were the serious faces, the black clothes, the strong fra grance of freshly cut spruce boughs, and the heavy, almost suffocating redolence of too many strange flowers, wreaths upon wreaths.
Grandfather's death brought great changes into the lives of all of us. Father now became the rightful owner of Svensksund. We moved to the Big House, while Grandmother Augusta and Aunt Jana took up residence in the Villa on the hill.