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Authors: Mika Waltari

The Wanderer

BOOK: The Wanderer
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The Wanderer

b
y Mika Waltari

Translated by Naomi Walford

BOOK I.
Michael the Pilgrim

A DECISION once taken brings peace to a man’s mind and eases his soul. With my brother Andy and my dog Rael I had turned my back upon Rome and all Christendom and had started on my way to the Holy Land to atone for my sins.

And so when I stood, free as a bird, in the great square of that city of marvels, Venice, I seemed to have risen from the stinking darkness of the grave to a new life. The sights and smells of carnage and the plague in Rome grew fainter in my mind. My body breathed deeply of the sea wind, and my eager eyes gazed their fill at all the Turks, Jews, Moors, and Negroes moving freely about in their varied dress. I seemed to be standing at the gates of the fabled Orient, and I was seized by an irresistible desire to behold strange peoples, and the countries whence those proud vessels, flying the Lion of St. Mark, had sailed into the city.

Neither Andy nor I had anything to fear from the officials of the illustrious Republic, and could settle there or travel as we wished. I had obtained from a shrewd Venetian at an exorbitant price a pass to which was attached a notary’s seal. Since I felt confident that no one knew anything of so remote and obscure a country as my native Finland, I gave my true Finnish name of Mikael Karvajalka. This appeared on the document as Michael Carvajal, for which reason I was afterward alleged to be of Spanish birth, although it was expressly stated on the document that I had formerly belonged to the court of the King of Denmark and had rendered useful service to the Signoria of Venice at the sack of Rome in that summer of 1527.

I realized that not a whole lifetime would suffice for all that there was to see and admire in Venice, though I would gladly have stayed at least long enough to worship in each of the churches. But the city offered many and powerful temptations, and so I began my search for a ship to carry us to the Holy Land. It was not long before I fell in with a man down by the harbor who had a crooked nose. He greatly applauded my intention and told me that I had come to Venice just at the right time. A large convoy, under the protection of a Venetian war galley, was shortly to sail for Cyprus, and it was more than likely that a pilgrim ship would take advantage of the escort.

“This is the best season of the year for so blessed an enterprise,” he assured me. “You will have a following wind and need fear no storms. Powerful galleys mounting many cannon will protect the merchantmen from infidel pirates, who are an ever present menace to single vessels. Moreover, in these disturbed and godless times there are but few who undertake the pilgrimage, so you will not be overcrowded. Good and varied food may be obtained on board for a reasonable price, and there’s nothing to prevent travelers from taking their own provisions. Agents in the Holy Land arrange the journey from the coast to Jerusalem in the best and cheapest manner, and the credentials that are to be bought at the Turkish house here safeguard the pilgrim from all molestation.”

When I asked him how much he thought the passage would cost, he looked at me with a quivering lip, and stretching forth his hand impulsively he said, “Master Michael, God must have willed our meeting. For if the truth must be told, this lovely city of ours is full of rogues who batten on the guileless foreigner. I’m a devout man, and my dearest wish has been to make the pilgrimage myself one day. But as my poverty prevents me, I’ve resolved to devote my life to the welfare of others more fortunate than myself, and facilitate their journey to the sacred places where our Lord Jesus Christ lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead.”

He wept bitterly, and I felt great compassion for him. Quickly drying his tears, he looked me frankly in the eye and said, “I ask only a ducat for my services. By this payment you guarantee your sincerity of purpose, and at the same time relieve yourself of all further concern in the matter.”

I could do no less than trust him, for as I walked with him along the quayside he greeted many captains, merchants, and customs officers, who smiled and jested good-humoredly when they saw me in his company. I gave him his ducat, therefore, warning him at the same time that I was not a rich man and wished to travel cheaply. He reassured me, and drove a good bargain with the merchant from whom I bought a pilgrim’s cloak and a new rosary. Having attended me to my lodging, he promised to call and tell me when our vessel was to sail.

In a fever of impatience I wandered about Venice until at last one afternoon my friend with the crooked nose arrived breathless, and urged us to make all haste to the ship, as the convoy was to sail the following day at dawn. We threw our belongings together and were rowed out to our vessel, which lay at anchor in the harbor. In comparison with the great merchantmen she looked suspiciously small, but my crooked-nosed friend explained this, saying that all the space on board was reserved for pilgrims and that no cargo was carried. The pock-marked captain received us courteously, and when we had counted out eighteen gold ducats each into his outstretched hand, vowed that it was solely out of regard for his crooked-nosed friend that he allowed us so cheap a passage.

The purser showed us to our sleeping places in the hold, which was strewn with clean straw, and pointing to a jar of sour wine, he invited us to make full use of the dipper and refresh ourselves at the owners’ expense, as the joyous day of departure was at hand. Our only light came from a couple of feeble lamps, so that despite the uproar all about us we were unable to see much of our fellow passengers.

My friend with the crooked nose left the captain to come and bid us farewell. He embraced me warmly, and with tearful blessings wished us a fortunate journey.

“Master de Carvajal,” he said, “I can fancy no happier day than that which brings you back safe and sound. Once more let me earnestly warn you against confiding in strangers, however ingratiating their manner. And should you encounter infidels, remember to say,
‘Bismil-lah—irrahman

irrahim’!
This pious Arabic greeting is certain to win you their good will.”
 

Having once more kissed me on both cheeks he climbed over the side, his purse jingling as he did so, and dropped into the rowing boat. But I will say no more of this heartless man, whose very memory is offensive. For no sooner had the patched sails been hoisted, and with timbers creaking and water slapping to and fro in the bilge the vessel stood out to sea, than it was borne in upon us how grievously we had been swindled. The green copper domes of the Venetian churches had not sunk below the horizon before I was forced to look truth in the eye.

Our little craft rolled as sluggishly as a sinking coffin in the wash of the great merchantmen, and lagged farther and farther astern, while from the war galley flew all manner of signals urging us to keep better station. The crew was a tattered, thievish rabble, and from my conversation with other pilgrims I soon perceived that I had paid an excessive sum for our passage, of which the crooked-nosed fellow had no doubt pocketed half. For there were among us some poor wretches who had been allowed to camp on deck, and they had paid no more than a ducat for the whole voyage.

A man lying forward suffered from spasmodic twitches in his limbs. He had an iron band riveted about his waist, and wore heavy shackles on his ankles. An old fellow with burning eyes crawled about on hands and knees and swore that he would make the whole journey from the shores of the Holy Land to Jerusalem in this way. He woke us all one night with fearful screams, and explained that he had seen white angels floating round the ship, and that they had settled to rest on the yards.

But the pock-marked captain was no bad seaman. He never quite lost touch with the convoy, so that every evening as the stars came out we sighted the masthead lights of the other vessels, which had hove to for the night or lay at anchor in some sheltering bay. When we grew alarmed at being left too far astern he readily invited us to man the oars. It would be wholesome exercise, he said. Indeed, we found ourselves obliged to lend the crew a hand at this task several times, although not more than fifteen of the hundred pilgrims were fit for it. The men were for the most part too old, crippled, or sickly, and the women, of course, could not be put to such work.

Among these was one young woman who on the very first day had aroused my curiosity. Both her dress and her graceful bearing distinguished her from the rest. Her silken gown was adorned with silver brocade and pearls, and she wore jewels also, so that I marveled how she could have fallen among such grimy company. An enormously fat serving woman was in constant attendance. The strangest thing about the lady was that she never appeared unveiled. Even her eyes were concealed. At first I fancied that vanity impelled her to protect her complexion from the burning rays of the sun, but I soon found that she retained her veil even after sunset. Yet one could discern enough of her features to be assured that they were neither disfigured nor ugly. As the sun gleams through thin cloud, so did her youthful charm gleam through the filmy veil. I could not imagine what grievous sin had brought her on this pilgrimage and induced her to hide her face.

Seeing her stand alone at the rail one evening, just after sunset, I felt impelled to approach her, but at my coming she quickly turned away her head and dropped the veil over her face, so that I had no time to glimpse more than the curve of her cheek. But her hair fell in fair curls from beneath her round headdress, and as I contemplated this hair I felt a weakness in my knees, and was aware of such attraction as a magnet exercises upon iron filings.

I stood at a seemly distance from her and, like her, surveyed the fading wine color of the sea. But I was keenly conscious of her presence, and after a while she turned her head slightly as if expecting me to speak. I therefore summoned up my courage and said, “We’re fellow voyagers, bound for the same goal. In the sight of God and in expiation of sin we are all equal, so don’t be offended with me for addressing you. I long to talk to someone of my own age—someone different from all these cripples.”

“You interrupt my prayers, Master de Carvajal,” she said in a tone of rebuke. Nevertheless, the rosary disappeared between her slender fingers, and she turned toward me readily. I started with pleasure on finding that she knew my name, for it was a sign that she took some interest in me. But in my humility I was frank with her.

“Don’t call me that, for I’m not of noble birth. In my own language the name is Karvajalka, and it belonged to my foster mother, who died long ago. She gave it to me out of pity, because I never knew who my father was. But I’m not quite penniless, nor without education, for I have studied at several learned universities. You would give me most pleasure by calling me simply Michael, the pilgrim.”

“Very well,” she assented cordially. “And you must call me Giulia, without asking about my family or my father’s name, or even my birthplace. Such questions would only revive painful memories for me.”

“Giulia,” I asked her at once, “why do you veil your face, when both the sound of your voice and the gold of your hair hint at its beauty? Is it to prevent the thoughts of us weak men from straying into forbidden paths?”

But at these indiscreet words she sighed deeply, as if I had inflicted a mortal wound, turned her back upon me, and began to sob. In deep dismay I stammered apologies and assured her that I would die rather than cause her the least distress.

When she had wiped her eyes under cover of the veil she turned to me again and said, “Pilgrim Michael, just as one man bears a cross upon his back, and another hangs iron fetters upon his limbs, so have I sworn never to show my face to a stranger in the course of this voyage. Never ask me to uncover it, for such a request could only increase the burden God has laid upon me from birth.”

She said this so gravely that I was deeply moved. Seizing her hand I kissed it and gave my solemn promise never to tempt her to the breaking of her vow. I then asked her to take a cup of sweet malmsey with me in all propriety, from a cask which I had brought on board. After some modest hesitation she accepted on condition that her old nurse might be of our company, for fear of ill-natured talk. We therefore drank together from my silver goblet, and as we passed this from one to the other, the light touch of her hand sent a thrill through my body. She on her part offered me sweetmeats, wrapped in silk in the Turkish fashion. She would have given some to my dog, but Rael was waging war below against the rats, and so Andy joined us instead and to my satisfaction engaged the serving woman in animated conversation.

When we had been drinking for some time, Giulia’s nurse Johanna began to regale Andy with questionable stories of priests and monks, and I too ventured to entertain Giulia with a gallant anecdote or two. She was in no way offended, but laughed her silvery laugh and under cover of darkness let her hand rest more than once on my wrist or knee. So we continued until far into the night, while the dark seas sighed around us, and the heavens, filled with the silver dust of stars, soared in splendor overhead.

BOOK: The Wanderer
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