Authors: Petra Durst-Benning
ALSO BY PETRA DURST-BENNING
The Glassblower Trilogy
The American Lady
The Paradise of Glass
The Century Trilogy
While the World Is Still Asleep
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2013 Petra Durst-Benning and Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH
Translation copyright © 2016 Edwin Miles
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Previously published as
by Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH in Germany in 2013. Translated from German by Edwin Miles. First published in English by AmazonCrossing in 2016.
Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
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Cover design by Shasti O’Leary-Soudant
The Palatinate, Germany, January 1898
“You were raised to marry, not to peel potatoes!”
Isabelle nearly jumped out of her skin when she suddenly heard her mother’s voice and then her chirping laugh, the same laugh with which Jeanette Herrenhus had always dismissed Isabelle’s protests.
Isabelle put down the knife she had been holding. Was she going insane? If she were, it would really come as no surprise. She looked around the kitchen, noting its low, soot-blackened ceiling and small windows. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen was cramped, and more and more, Isabelle felt like a bird trapped in a too-small cage, with too little air to breathe.
A strand of her curly red hair had worked loose from her braid, and she tucked it behind her ear. Then she went back to peeling potatoes. It would be a terrible thing if her mother were to appear there. The woman would have a nervous breakdown on the spot. And Isabelle wouldn’t really be able to blame her.
was a small Palatinate village close to the French border, deep in a basin-shaped valley. Little light made it through the tiny windows of the half-timbered house. To the west were dark, towering forests that were actually across the border in France, while to the east were a few vineyards that grew Sylvaner and Pinot Gris grapes. In between lay the village of Grimmzeit. Just thinking of the name of the village made Isabelle shudder. Grim times: no name could be more apt. The village consisted of a few dozen stout, traditional houses, a church, and a village school. There were no shops, so to buy anything at all, one had to travel to the next town. And even there, it felt as if everything had been buried alive. Which is just how she felt in that house—not that she had anyone but herself to blame!
Around Grimmzeit, a handful of gloomy castles lurked on the mountainsides. They were built by long-forgotten nobles in earlier times. Leon had announced his desire to visit them with her in the coming spring. He had gone on at length about the history of the region, as if he had worked on the formidable structures himself, and he had talked about the Celts, the Romans, and the Germanic tribes. Although Isabelle had said nothing in response, the prospect of outings to old piles of stones sounded about as appealing as sitting around in Grimmzeit itself.
Even if Isabelle had maintained contact with her family in Berlin, she would never have had the heart to write to her father, the successful businessman Moritz Herrenhus, or her mother, the erstwhile prima ballerina of the Berlin State Ballet:
I live in Grimmzeit. Come and visit!
Isabelle laughed drily. Her parents had not sent her to finishing school for
. Isabelle Herrenhus, the beautiful debutante, was supposed to make a good match. Money marries money, as they say, and power sleeps in the same bed as both of you—that had been her father’s plan. He had unearthed one potential marriage candidate after another—factory owners’ sons, young counts, overseas diplomats with the best contacts, and even an aging baron. He had put so much hope in her and had invested a great deal of money. The most beautiful dresses, extravagant jewelry, elaborate hairdos—only the best was ever good enough for his princess. She was the center of attention at every party she attended and was always surrounded by budding suitors. Her charm, straightforward manner, and infectious laugh had earned her at least as much admiration as her good looks. In addition to milk-and-honey skin, she had waist-length locks that tumbled over her shoulders and down her back like molten copper. Dark-brown lashes crowned and accentuated her emerald-green eyes, and her finely curved eyebrows made them look daring and challenging, as if to say,
What price the world? I don’t care. I can afford anything!
She had received proposals. Several, in fact. But whenever a suitor had come to her, bouquet in hand, stammering out his request for her hand in marriage, Isabelle had always shaken her head and said, “No, thank you.” She was holding out for the great love of her life.
Leon Feininger. Isabelle would never forget the way he had walked into the Berlin cycling club, his head held high, chest out, as confidently as if he owned the place. His curly brown hair hung devil-may-care around his face. His striking, masculine face spoke of adventure and audacity. With his powerful calves and fit, muscular torso, he was so different from the feeble, pallid drones who populated the salons of Berlin. At that first sight of him, her heart began to pound as if about to burst, and she knew that she wanted to—no, that she
—get to know him better. And the attraction had been mutual.
On their cycling tours through Berlin’s hinterland, Leon had talked. About his family, who lived on a winegrowing estate. About their centuries-old roots and about the traditions to which the Feininger family felt bound. He had told Isabelle they lived like the landed gentry of England but in the Palatinate region instead. He had enthusiastically described the grape harvest and the traditional celebrations and wine tastings in enormous cellars, the wine invariably served with hearty food. In her mind’s eye, the images grew more and more vibrant—romantic, rural scenes like those the great painters had immortalized in oil on canvas. And she was in the middle of it all as the
of the estate . . . receptions in the rose garden, wine festivals where she was always the most beautiful woman present, cozy evenings spent around the fireplace with close friends and good red wine. At Leon’s winery, she would have a free hand, and finally—finally—not have to dance to her father’s tune. She could scarcely wait to put her skills to some useful purpose.
Why Leon had left the Palatinate when everything there had been so wonderful—well,
was a question Isabelle had never asked. Had he really only wanted to pit himself against the best cyclists in Germany? Or had he been unable to put up with the confinements of his homeland? And why had she never questioned his depictions or dug a little deeper? That would have been the smart thing to do. Instead, she had eloped with him blindly, like a heroine in a cheap novel. She was no longer surprised that those stories always ended when the prince and his princess rode off in a coach or on horseback. Because what came next wasn’t really suited to the romantic dispositions of the women who read those stories. Who wanted to watch the princess turn into a housemaid?
Oh, Leon, if I didn’t love you so much
. . . , Isabelle thought, not for the first time.
Leon’s family had taken his sudden reappearance after his many months away—and with a new bride in tow—with astonishing indifference. His mother, a careworn woman aged beyond her years, had bashfully stroked her son’s arm just once. Only later did Isabelle understand that, for Anni Feininger, the simple gesture was a demonstration of great love. Leon’s father, Oskar, a burly, taciturn man, had nodded at Leon—nothing more—and Isabelle could have sworn that his expression had darkened a little when he did so. Father and son had practically nothing in common.
Of course, there had been questions, along with a few reproaches and congratulations on their marriage. But that was all. They were given one of the bedrooms on the second floor—directly beside the room where Leon’s parents slept. That had been the first shock for Isabelle, who had thought that she and Leon would be given a side wing of the estate. But the “side wing” of the farmhouse was home to the cows. At the time, Isabelle had determined not to stay there a single day longer than necessary, and she refused to unpack her bags. The next day, when she saw how her elegant dresses were being crushed in their cases, she realized that she had no choice but to hang them in the far-too-small wardrobe. She would put up with the situation, but as a stopgap, no more. After that, Leon would have to find a new place for them.
But the very next day, Leon had needed to help with the grape harvest, and he had no time to search for a better house or even a comfortable apartment. He had not even been able to show her the entire estate, which was really no more than a simple farm. Isabelle had discovered the little there was to see by herself: the large barn filled with wine barrels, the stall for the two cows whose rear ends were always smeared with dung, the pigsty in which she still hadn’t set foot, and a mesh chicken pen that had been patched with wire countless times. There wasn’t a trace of the “landed gentry” romance she’d imagined. While Isabelle tiptoed between the pigsty and the barn in her fine suede shoes, Leon’s effusive descriptions of his home dissolved like smoke in the wind. But the sun shone, casting a golden veil over the rugged landscape, and the fruity odor of freshly pressed grape juice added a certain sweetness to the country air. In September, not yet two months after their arrival, there had been a festival to mark the end of the harvest, and it had come close to the celebration that Isabelle had pictured in her mind. She and Leon danced through half the night, and when they got hungry, they fortified themselves with chunks of hearty onion pie.
The morning after the harvest festival, Isabelle had gone to hang a jacket in her wardrobe, and her elegant salon dresses caught her eye. They were leading a lonely existence in there.
she thought. Everything was different than she had expected it to be, but maybe she could get used to life on the land—at least once they had found a suitable home for themselves.
Then the golden autumn came to an abrupt end, and the sun was replaced by fog. With the fog came the boredom, something to which Isabelle was entirely unaccustomed. In Berlin, she never had enough time for her activities: seeing her friends; training on her bicycle with her best friend, Josephine; and all her work in the cycling club, in addition to all the social engagements her parents took her to. The idleness of her new life was now nearly driving her crazy. No one wanted or needed anything from her. Anni had her household firmly in her grasp, and Isabelle was only occasionally allowed to help in the kitchen. There were no jobs to be had in the area. Her dreams of an independent life burst like soap bubbles.
“Come out for a ride with me! You’ll feel so much better afterward,” said Leon when she complained about the leaden wasteland that was weighing so heavily on her. But Isabelle waved him off. Ever since taking a bad fall during a long-distance race the previous spring, cycling had become the last thing she wanted to do.
“Why don’t we try to find a house of our own?” she asked.
“Now, in winter? When everything’s so bleak? I don’t think that would be a good idea,” said Leon, and he promised they would look for something in the spring. Isabelle was left only with the nights. In Leon’s arms, at least, she found the fulfillment that she was denied during the day.
Though Isabelle knew she should be grateful to have been given a task, she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the mountain of potatoes in front of her. If anyone had told her in her previous life how much work had to be done to fill the bellies of five adults, she would not have believed it. The red earth of the Palatinate that clung so obstinately to the potatoes crept deeper and deeper into the little creases of her knuckles every day and clung so persistently under her fingernails that none of her talents as a manicurist could get them clean again.
Isabelle sighed deeply again. Hands like a farmer’s wife and potatoes, morning, noon, and night.
“Think you’ll get through all that today?”
Isabelle did not have to turn around to know her mother-in-law was standing in the doorway. Fog-dampened air and the stink of the pigsty had entered the kitchen with her.
“The knife is dull. I can’t do it any faster,” Isabelle said.
“It’s a poor workman who blames his tools!” Anni Feininger pulled up a chair and joined Isabelle at the kitchen table. “Imagine, a letter arrived for Leon. A letter from—” She broke off abruptly when she saw the potatoes Isabelle had already peeled. “And you’ve once again cut off half the potato with the peel! Won’t you ever learn?” Anni snatched the knife out of Isabelle’s hand, then picked up one of the dirty potatoes. The letter—at the mention of which Isabelle had detected, for the very first time, a trace of excitement in Anni’s voice—was tossed carelessly onto the table, the red-brown dust from the potatoes immediately soiling the cream-colored envelope.
How many times does she plan to show me how to peel a potato?
Isabelle wondered, glancing curiously at the letter. “Herr Leonard Feininger” was written on it in stiff handwriting, but Isabelle could not make out the name of the sender. She did not like to think about who might want something from him.
“Like this!” Leon’s mother held a paper-thin curl of potato skin triumphantly in the air.
“Then do the work yourself,” said Isabelle. “I was not brought up to peel potatoes!” She stood up and swept out of the room.
Where was Leon? Isabelle peered out through the door of the house. The blanket of fog that had draped itself over the village was so thick that she could barely make out the neighbors’ houses. He wouldn’t ride far in this murky soup, would he? Then again, Leon went cycling whenever the mood took him—never mind the weather or anything else. Her beautiful, wild cyclist. Perhaps a little fresh air would do her good as well. A walk up the hill behind the house and down again, just to make sure she didn’t lose her figure. Isabelle grabbed her jacket and a scarf from the wardrobe.
The air was moist and heavy, and just breathing hurt her lungs.
What am I doing?
she thought angrily when she nearly lost her footing at a slippery spot on the hillside. She looked out in disgust at the foggy wasteland all around her. How did I wind up here?
We raised you to marry well
.” Again, Isabelle heard her mother’s voice. Suddenly, it felt as if the conversation had taken place just the day before, though it was long ago.
That day, more than two years earlier, Isabelle had gone to visit her friend Josephine in her new home. Clara had also been there. Josephine, Clara, and Isabelle had been inseparable, and Clara and Isabelle had been curious to see how Josephine had set up the little house she’d inherited from old Frieda. To Isabelle’s astonishment, everything looked just as it had before: the same threadbare furniture with the patchwork rugs on the floor. The place even smelled like it always had—of the potatoes stored away in the cellar and of the musty woolen blankets old Frieda draped over every sofa and armchair. Mousie the cat, who lazed around wherever it felt like it and left its fur behind, had added its own distinctive bouquet to the mix. Josephine had changed nothing after moving in, nothing at all. To Isabelle, the whole place looked shabby, but she had been moved by the fact that Josephine had chosen to preserve the memory of her deceased benefactor in that way.