Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
Von Igelfeld frowned as Prinzel fished in his jacket and took out a folded piece of paper.
‘Last night, Herr von Igelfeld, when you were at our house you dropped this piece of paper. You will recall that it was the paper on which you made some notes.’
Von Igelfeld looked in horror at the piece of paper.
‘It’s so easy,’ Prinzel went on, ‘to let things fall out of one’s pocket – doubly so, if I might say, when one’s suit has so many holes.’
Von Igelfeld said nothing.
‘At first when I found this piece of paper,’ said Prinzel, ‘I had no idea what it was. There are some scribblings on it, but they seem to bear no relationship to any German words. I wondered if perhaps they were in an obscure language that I did not know. There are so many languages and so many scripts, one cannot possibly be on top of them all. What do you think, Herr Unterholzer?’
Prinzel handed the piece of paper to Unterholzer, who examined it eagerly. ‘How interesting,’ he said. ‘I, too, find it difficult to decipher. What is this word here, for example?
. That is a fascinating word. Or this one here?
? That is very challenging.’
‘Perhaps we should ask Herr von Igelfeld,’ said Prinzel. ‘I assumed that it was in code.’
Von Igelfeld leapt at the opening. ‘That is exactly what it is,’ he said.
Prinzel smiled. ‘But why write in code?’
‘Yes, why?’ echoed Unterholzer. ‘There is no need to write in code – none at all.’
‘I read a book about the encoding machines once,’ said the Librarian. ‘It was by a mathematician who came from—’
‘I’ll tell you why I sometimes make notes in code,’ said von Igelfeld, cutting through the Librarian’s story. ‘It is because there is always a danger that others – those with no authority to do so – will read one’s notes. And that, as you see, sometimes happens.’
This remark was greeted with silence. There was something in von Igelfeld’s tone that indicated that a boundary had been crossed. The silence persisted for the best part of a minute.
‘So, if you’ll forgive me,’ von Igelfeld went on, ‘I shall take my notes – thank you, Herr Prinzel – and return to my room.’
‘Mathematicians are the best code breakers,’ said the Librarian. ‘I have always maintained that.’
Two days later a note arrived from Frau Benz inviting von Igelfeld to have lunch at the Schloss Dunkelberg the following Sunday. ‘Nothing elaborate, I regret,’ she wrote, ‘but if the weather is fine we can eat on the west terrace. Very casual. I am very much looking forward to showing you the ceilings, including the
ceiling that is currently being painted. I would welcome your input.’
Von Igelfeld was delighted to receive the invitation, even if slightly puzzled by the final sentence. He was not sure whether he would use the word
himself, and he was not certain quite what was expected of him. Were comments the same thing as input? He could always comment on the ceilings but if Frau Benz was expecting something more, then he felt that he would be unlikely to provide it. Although he was as interested as the next person in art and in questions of architectural design, he would hardly describe himself as an expert in this area. And he had never actually had any
in these matters, or at least not as far as he knew.
Then there were the words
to be considered. Did this mean that he was not expected to wear a tie? Or even a jacket? And if one did not wear a jacket, then should one roll one’s sleeves up – a very plebeian practice, von Igelfeld had always felt – or perhaps wear a shirt that had short sleeves. He asked Prinzel, who said, ‘Very casual means what it says. Certainly no tie. And yes, sleeves should be short, if the weather permits, which it looks as if it will.’
Von Igelfeld absorbed this advice. He did not think that he had any short-sleeved shirts, but it occurred to him that it would be a simple matter to cut the sleeves off a long-sleeved shirt. And the same could
apply, he believed, if he was expected to wear short trousers, which again he did not possess: a quick snip of scissors to the legs of a pair of long trousers would quickly transform an unsuitable garment into a suitable one.
‘Should I wear short trousers?’ he asked Prinzel. ‘Is that very casual?’
Prinzel thought for a moment. He had never seen von Igelfeld’s legs, but he assumed that he had them, like everybody else. He smiled to himself as he pictured von Igelfeld in short trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. He would look very casual indeed.
‘If the weather permits it,’ he said. ‘Yes, if conditions are right there would be nothing wrong in wearing short trousers to a very casual occasion. Indeed, the rule today, Herr von Igelfeld, is simple. Anything goes. That is the rule, I believe.’
‘Schloss Dunkelberg, please,’ said von Igelfeld to the taxi driver.
The driver looked at him in his rear-view mirror. ‘Not possible,’ he said.
Von Igelfeld stared at the back of the man’s head. Was there something wrong with his car? ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘I believe this is a taxi, and you are a taxi driver, if I’m not mistaken.’
He rather surprised himself with his boldness, and
even as he spoke he wondered whether the mistake was possibly his. A few years ago there had been an embarrassing incident in Munich when he had opened the door of a taxi, climbed in, and given his destination to the driver – only to discover that what he thought was a taxi was not one at all, but was the official car of the
’s chief prosecutor. The prosecutor himself had arrived a few moments later, while his driver was still explaining to von Igelfeld that the car was not a taxi. It had been a
embarrassing incident, and von Igelfeld still remembered the looks of condescending amusement he had been given by both driver and prosecutor. It was their fault, of course: the car looked very much like a taxi, and they could hardly complain if innocent members of the public mistook it for one.
Now, as von Igelfeld glared at the back of his head, the driver turned round. ‘Yes, this is a taxi,’ he said. ‘And I’m very happy to take you to your destination. But it cannot be the Schloss Dunkelberg, I’m afraid. This is Sunday, as you may have noticed, and the Schloss is never open on Sundays. That is why I said it was not possible, because it isn’t. See?’
Von Igelfeld found the man’s manner somewhat irritating. ‘I
it’s Sunday,’ he said. ‘And of course I know that the Schloss is not open to the public on Sundays. I, however, am not a member of the public.’
He said this with a flourish. There! That would put this man in his place.
The driver stared at him. ‘You look like one to me,’ he said.
‘I look like what?’
‘Like a member of the public. We’re all members of the public, see. You, me, even the Chancellor. The Pope too, for that matter.’
Von Igelfeld pursed his lips. This was intolerable; one should be able to get into a taxi without becoming involved in a discussion of political and social philosophy.
‘Family,’ he said triumphantly. He did not think before he spoke, and it was perhaps not the best way of describing his role as a guest. But there was something so irritating about the driver that he felt he needed to convey very forcefully his special status in this visit. He was not quite family, of course, but he and Frau Benz had got on very well and there was every chance that in the fullness of time they might progress to first name terms.
‘Ah!’ said the driver. ‘Why didn’t you say so right at the beginning? I thought you were just an ordinary visitor, and I was trying to save you a wasted trip.’
‘Well, there you are,’ said von Igelfeld, sinking back into his seat. ‘That is all settled.’
‘Which entrance?’ asked the driver.
Von Igelfeld thought quickly. He had previously
entered the precincts of the Schloss by coach – with the Regensburg Local History Society party – and he had not paid much attention to entrances. Having claimed to be family, though, he could hardly confess ignorance as to how one got into the Schloss. ‘The usual,’ he said.
The driver nodded. ‘All right. I know the private drive well. I do a lot of driving for them, you know. Their own driver goes off on holiday from time to time and I step in for him. I know them all.’
He was looking in his mirror as he spoke, and he probably did not notice von Igelfeld’s sudden stiffening.
‘Oh yes,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘That is very good.’ He paused for a few moments. ‘Yes, very good.’
‘I sometimes take Frau Benz shopping,’ the driver continued. ‘Is she your sister? She sometimes spoke of a brother in Frankfurt. That you?’
Von Igelfeld shook his head. ‘No, that is not me.’
‘What was his name?’ asked the taxi driver. ‘He was a
too, wasn’t he?’
Von Igelfeld nodded, and looked out of the window. ‘It has been very dry,’ he observed. ‘I hope it rains. The farmers will need it.’
The taxi driver shook his head. ‘No, they won’t. They’ve had enough. They think it’s been very wet.’
‘I see,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘Then I hope that it doesn’t rain. I really hope so.’
‘So are you a cousin, then?’ asked the driver. ‘Are you on Frau Benz’s side or the other one?’
‘It’s very complicated,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘It is a very large family, and some of the members do not know one another, and have never met. That sometimes happens in very large, very formal families.’
‘I see,’ said the driver. ‘Actually, I’d heard that. It’s odd, though, isn’t it? It’s odd that members of the same family have never been introduced to one another.’
‘That is the way it is in some circles,’ said von Igelfeld. ‘That is the way it’s done.’ He paused, before saying with a finality that he hoped would bring the conversation to an end, ‘And it’s not for us to question these things.’
The driver took the hint, and the rest of the trip was passed in silence. Sitting in the back of the car, von Igelfeld allowed himself to reflect on what would happen when he was the master of the Schloss Dunkelberg. He and Frau Benz – Frau von Igelfeld by then, of course – would entertain frequently – and handsomely. They would have a string quartet on call, to play in the north drawing room, and they would dine in the state dining room. He was not sure if there was a state dining room, but if there was not, there shortly would be one. It would be a very impressive room, with pictures of early von Igelfelds lining the walls, interspersed with Flemish tapestry scenes of hunting dogs and the like. And if
there were no pictures of early von Igelfelds, that could always be remedied by engaging a suitable portrait painter to imagine what they might have looked like.
The library, of course, would be his redoubt. He would spend the mornings there, perhaps taking coffee on the terrace with Frau von Igelfeld at eleven o’clock. Then he would return to his desk, where he would work on his learned papers, a library table on either side piled high with leather-bound tomes. How agreeable that would be! And he might even do a bit of hunting in the woods surrounding the Schloss, inviting friends from Regensburg to join him – even Herr Huber! That would be highly entertaining: poor Herr Huber dressed in some absurd, ill-fitting set of lederhosen, with one of those odd hunting hats perched on his head! What a priceless image! And he would invite the Unterholzers too – and give them directions to enter by the tradesmen’s entrance! That would be extremely amusing. The Prinzels, of course, would come in by the front drive.
And there would be possibilities for the summer, too, when the Schloss was open to the public. Von Igelfeld would be magnanimous in this respect, and would increase the number of open rooms, allowing visitors to get a glimpse of his study and perhaps even to see him working there. He would get up from his chair and welcome them personally, giving rise to
breathless praise afterwards. ‘And did you see how courteous the Graf was when we entered his study? Did you see how he allowed us to touch the leather bindings of those beautiful books? Such a kind man! Of course real aristocrats are like that, aren’t they? They’re not at all standoffish – it’s the jumped-up arrivistes who come over all pompous. Real breeding always shows, you know …’
When they arrived at the Schloss, having swept up the private driveway that circled the elegantly laid out gardens, von Igelfeld paid the driver and they bade each other farewell with the polite reserve of a none-too-successful brief encounter. Von Igelfeld found himself faced by a large doorway that was surmounted by a stone coat of arms. He peered up at the arms – there was an owl, he thought, which was always reassuring. Owls, as symbols of wisdom, were a wiser choice for heraldic purposes than the more usual eagles or other birds of prey. Germany, of course, had an eagle as its symbol, which was not a particularly good idea, in von Igelfeld’s view. A smaller, less aggressive bird might be more appropriate: a sparrow, perhaps, or a robin, neither of which seemed to feature very prominently in heraldry.
There was a bell pull, which he pulled with a sharp tug. It would take a long time, he thought, for a bell to sound in the depths of this great building, and an
even longer time, he imagined, before anybody would come to the door. But there was no great delay, and within a very short time he heard a key being turned in the lock and the door opened before him. A small, grey-haired woman greeted him politely.
‘Professor von Igelfeld?’
Von Igelfeld bowed. ‘Yes. I believe that Frau Benz …’
‘Oh, Frau Benz is certainly expecting you. She is very pleased about your visit. It is a great honour.’
Von Igelfeld beamed. The modern world was increasingly casual, and ill-mannered. People took others for granted and paid little attention to status. He did not consider himself immodest – far from it – but he
the author of
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, and he was a respected professor of the University of Regensburg, and he did hold several honorary degrees, even if one was only from Belgium and another from an Italian university that had since closed down.
‘The honour,’ he said, ‘is entirely mine.’
The woman smiled as she led him into an entrance hall. It was a room on a comfortable scale, with hunting prints adorning the walls, and a large rack for coats and hats. The only thing singling it out as a room in a
rather than a mere country house was the height of the ceiling, and the elaborate plasterwork cornice that bounded it. And perhaps the carpets too, which were those faded Persian rugs of indeterminate blue that von
Igelfeld remembered from boyhood visits to his grandfather’s house; the von Igelfelds did not live on quite this scale, but they need never apologise for the quality of their rugs.