Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
‘No,’ said Frau Benz. ‘I’m confident that my artist will capture it perfectly accurately. And I do not believe that Herr Benz has been in any way disembodied since he left us. If anything, I believe that he may have put on weight.’
Ophelia now left the table to fetch the first course of soup. The talk flowed easily, moving lightly from subject to subject. Frau Benz proved to be an easy conversationalist – well informed and witty – and she and von Igelfeld appeared to get on very well. The soup plates were cleared and the next course served, all the while hosts and guests talking animatedly. Then there was cheese and biscuits, accompanied by small cups of strong coffee.
Frau Benz looked at her watch. ‘Time has flown,’ she said.
‘Indeed it has,’ agreed von Igelfeld. ‘And there are so many topics that we have yet to discuss. It is ever thus, I believe.’
Frau Benz reached for the shawl she had hung over the back of her chair. ‘Then we shall have to continue our conversation, Professor von Igelfeld,’
she said. ‘Perhaps you would care to come out to the Schloss Dunkelberg.’
Ophelia looked pointedly at Prinzel, who pretended not to have seen her glance.
‘That would be very agreeable,’ said von Igelfeld.
‘Then shall we meet before too long?’ asked Frau Benz.
Von Igelfeld nodded. ‘That would be very convenient.’
‘And if I might be permitted to mend your clothes,’ Frau Benz went on, ‘I’m a competent seamstress.’
Von Igelfeld blushed. ‘That will not be necessary,’ he muttered. ‘But thank you, Frau Benz.’
Frau Benz was escorted to the door by Ophelia. Prinzel, having said goodbye to her, remained in the dining room with von Igelfeld. ‘There you are!’ he exclaimed. ‘I could have told you, Herr von Igelfeld: you are a
to eligible widows – a real gift!’
Von Igelfeld looked down at his shoes. ‘Oh, I don’t know …’ he began modestly.
‘And I must say, Herr von Igelfeld,’ went on Prinzel, ‘that was a brilliant stroke – coming in those clothes full of holes! That’s exactly the sort of thing that tugs on the heartstrings of women. They can’t resist the challenge.’
Von Igelfeld stared at his host. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said.
‘Clever!’ said Prinzel, wagging a finger at his friend.
‘My goodness, Herr von Igelfeld, who would have known what a cunning …
you’ve turned out to be. Who would have guessed?’
‘Oh, I would.’ This was from Ophelia, who had come back into the room after seeing Frau Benz off at the front door. ‘I would certainly have guessed – because it’s almost always the dull and boring ones who have hidden depths. Look behind the dry-as-dust exterior and what do you see? A Lothario! I’ve seen it so often – so often!’
It would have been easy for von Igelfeld to make much of the invitation he had received to the Schloss Dunkelberg. He did not do this, however, but remained silent on the subject, beyond having a quiet word with the Librarian before morning coffee the following day. Prinzel, it appeared, had already said something to Herr Huber about the previous evening’s dinner, and the Librarian was clearly excited by the subject when von Igelfeld met him in the corridor.
‘So, Herr von Igelfeld,’ he enthused. ‘What is this I hear about your being invited to the Schloss Dunkelberg? What an honour!’
Von Igelfeld made a modest gesture of dismissal.
‘Oh, I don’t know, I really don’t. But how did you hear about this matter, Herr Huber? Did Professor Dr Dr Prinzel …’
‘… tell me? Yes, he did. He said that there appears to be the makings of a close friendship between you and the charming lady who owns the Schloss. And I am very pleased to hear it, I must say.’
Von Igelfeld was secretly gratified. ‘Oh, I don’t know about that, Herr Huber,’ he said. ‘We are certainly on good terms, but I’m not sure I would describe it as a close friendship. That is, perhaps, going a bit far.’
The Librarian appeared not to have heard him. ‘It will be very pleasant when you are, perhaps, on even closer terms. I take it that we shall be able to call on you at the Schloss?’ He paused. ‘My aunt will be delighted to hear about this. She used to have a book of photographs of the Schloss, taken in the early days of the twentieth century. Not by her, of course, but by a well-known photographer, a certain Herr Noldt, if I remember correctly. You have perhaps heard of him. There is still a family of Noldts that’s active in artistic circles, I believe.’
Von Igelfeld glanced about him. Laying a hand on the Librarian’s sleeve, he addressed him quietly. ‘I have not heard of Herr Noldt, but I shall keep an eye open for that book. However, I must ask you to be discreet
about all this, Herr Huber. As you will understand, people like Frau Benz—’
‘Is that her name?’ interrupted the Librarian. ‘It sounds strangely familiar. I wonder if my aunt …’
‘Please, Herr Huber: what I was about to say is that in the circles in which Frau Benz moves, it is not thought to be good form to talk too openly about these personal matters. So I would not want, for example, Professor Dr Unterholzer, for all his many merits, to hear about this … just yet.’
Von Igelfeld was not sure exactly why he wanted to keep his meeting with Frau Benz from Unterholzer. One part of him wanted to boast about it – in order to put Unterholzer in his place. Unterholzer would never receive an invitation to view anybody’s ceiling, let alone so distinguished a ceiling as that which sheltered Frau Benz. It would be satisfying, to say the least, to be able to remind him of that, but somehow to do so struck von Igelfeld as being in some way vaguely
. Unterholzer was quite capable of spoiling anything, and von Igelfeld did not want to risk so delicate a plant as a budding romance by allowing Unterholzer to intrude.
Von Igelfeld had calculated that the Librarian would be flattered by being taken into his confidence, and this proved to be the case. ‘Of course, Herr von Igelfeld,’ said Herr Huber. ‘You and I understand these
things perfectly, even if not everybody …’ and here he exchanged a conspiratorial glance with von Igelfeld, ‘even if not
‘Exactly,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘And thank you, Herr Huber. Thank you for your discretion – which, as ever, is much appreciated.’ He paused. There were times when a small scrap of comfort had to be thrown to the Librarian. ‘And tell me, Herr Huber, how is your dear aunt? I must try to visit her some day. Perhaps you and I could make a trip to the nursing home together.’
The Librarian beamed with pleasure. ‘Oh, thank you, Herr von Igelfeld. That would be a very good thing to do. I could introduce you to the new matron, who is from Frankfurt, you’ll be interested to hear, and very charming and well informed.’
Von Igelfeld smiled graciously. ‘That would be very good. But perhaps we should not make any firm arrangements just yet, as I have certain obligations in relation to the Schloss …’
Herr Huber raised a finger to his lips in a gesture of solidarity. ‘Of course,’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘There are more important visits for you to make. I understand perfectly.’
They were now at the coffee room door, and von Igelfeld noted with relief that although Prinzel had already arrived, there was no sign of Unterholzer. While
the Librarian poured a cup of coffee for both of them, he approached Prinzel. ‘Thank you very much for last evening,’ he said. ‘I enjoyed myself greatly.’
‘So did we, Herr von Igelfeld,’ said Prinzel. ‘And so did Frau Benz, I believe.’
Prinzel made no effort to keep his voice down, and von Igelfeld frowned.
‘Something wrong?’ asked Prinzel.
‘No, there is nothing wrong. It’s just that I would prefer it if you could refrain from mentioning last night to our dear colleague Professor Unterholzer.’ He looked at Prinzel imploringly. This was not a large favour to ask, he felt.
Prinzel shrugged. ‘But I already have,’ he said. ‘I told him earlier this morning that you would be going out to the Schloss Dunkelberg some time soon.’ He looked at von Igelfeld’s expression of dismay. ‘Have I spoken out of turn? I take it that this is not a confidential matter?’
‘I would prefer it not to have been mentioned,’ said von Igelfeld coldly. ‘I wouldn’t take it upon myself to mention your social arrangements to all and sundry.’
‘Why not?’ asked Prinzel. ‘What does it matter who knows what I’m doing? It’s hardly a state secret.’
‘Not in your view,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘But not everybody …’
Support now came from an unlikely quarter. ‘Not everybody likes to have their dirty washing done in public,’ said the Librarian, handing a cup of coffee to von Igelfeld and looking defiantly at Prinzel.
‘What’s dirty about this washing?’ countered Prinzel.
The Librarian stood his ground. ‘That is just a metaphor.’ He glanced at von Igelfeld, almost apologetically. ‘I’m not suggesting that Professor von Igelfeld’s washing is dirty, and certainly not dirtier that anybody else’s. But you must remember that there are vulgar people who might wish to make something of his private life. Gossip columnists, for instance.’
Prinzel burst out laughing. ‘I can’t imagine for a moment that any gossip columnists would be the slightest bit interested in what Professor von Igelfeld gets up to, Herr Huber.’
Von Igelfeld looked at Prinzel reproachfully. He could not see why gossip columnists would
be interested. ‘I don’t know,’ he began. ‘There are people who might …’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Prinzel firmly. ‘What any of us does is of no conceivable interest to the people who read these things. They are interested in glamorous people – not in the likes of us. Not even Professor Zimmermann could expect a mention from those people.’
The conversation might have become even more acrimonious had it not been for the arrival of Unterholzer.
‘This sounds very interesting,’ he said breezily, as he helped himself to coffee. ‘Gossip columnists? What about gossip columnists? Have they any interesting titbits for us in the newspapers today? Anything about, shall we say, new romances? Any new and exciting romances involving the chatelaine of a certain
, shall we say?’
The Librarian gasped audibly. This was effrontery on a major scale; no wonder poor Professor von Igelfeld had wanted to keep this information from Unterholzer. But now it appeared that it was too late.
Von Igelfeld glowered at Unterholzer. ‘I’m afraid that none of us is in a position to answer your question, Herr Unterholzer. As you will appreciate, we do not read the sort of newspaper in which such things are speculated upon.’
‘We do not,’ said the Librarian emphatically. ‘Although sometimes when I am at the nursing home – when my aunt is perhaps having a bed-bath and I cannot go into her room for a few minutes – I sit in the waiting room and there are such publications on the table. It is sometimes inevitable that one will see—’
‘Yes, Herr Huber,’ interjected Unterholzer. ‘We all know about that. But what about my question: any romantic news?’
Von Igelfeld did not deign to reply.
‘Oh well,’ said Unterholzer. ‘Let’s hope that those who make new, grand friends won’t forget the rest of us when they get their knees under the table.’
Von Igelfeld glared at his colleague. It was typical of Unterholzer to use such a crude phrase: knees under the table, indeed. He imagined Unterholzer trying to push his own, rather large knees under an elegant, walnut-burr table – the sort of table that one might expect to find in every room in the Schloss Dunkelberg. It was not an edifying picture.
He decided to divert the discussion. ‘Tell us, Herr Huber,’ he began, ‘about this waiting room in the nursing home. Does it face north or south? Or perhaps in some other direction?’
Von Igelfeld saw Unterholzer’s eyes glaze over as the Librarian responded to the question. For the moment the threat had passed, but he would need to be vigilant.
Yet danger can come from an unexpected quarter, and it was while the Librarian was engaged in a long description of the waiting room that Prinzel suddenly interrupted him.
‘Excuse me, Herr Huber,’ he said, holding up a hand to stop the flow. ‘That is all very fascinating but I have something to return to Professor von Igelfeld.’