Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (10 page)

It was warm. A few clouds swimming in the sky were reflected in the blue of the lake. At that moment, a cloud covered the sun, casting a subtle shadow over the small group of people and the shore of Lake St. Moritz. Betsy extended a hand to Edward, who took it. His mother was German and shaking hands was familiar to him. He made a slight bow and in German said, “I’m so happy to meet you, Madam.”

Betsy smiled at him. She was wearing her moss-green suit and a hat that would have shaded her face even without the parasol. Edward thought of Jamie’s remark about Mathilde’s aunt’s predilection for extravagant hats. He returned her smile. Her narrow face was framed by dark hair, as much as her hat allowed him to see of it, but it was the dark-blue eyes that he found utterly amazing.

“Mathilde!” Betsy called, turning toward her niece.

Mathilde, a few steps away, was watching James being impatiently pulled away by Kate. Mathilde’s face was radiant with delight at the thought that he would be near her for hours.

“Can you come here for a moment, Mathilde?” Betsy called again.

Mathilde’s face still bore the happy if somewhat absent expression it had exhibited when she’d been watching James. But when the sun suddenly came out again from behind the cloud and flooded her face with light, it seemed as if her smile deepened at the sight of Edward. In any event, that’s how Edward interpreted it.

Up to now, he hadn’t really looked at the girl, he thought. It was as if the sun had just lifted a veil from before Mathilde’s, no, from before
his
eyes. Mathilde was as tall as her aunt and resembled her in many ways. She seemed a bit softer, as if not all the baby fat had melted away yet. On the whole, there were fewer sharp contrasts. Her hair was blonde and curly and suited her blue eyes. Betsy’s nose was prominent and gave her a bold air, but Mathilde’s was small and discreet. Her cheeks, he noticed, were almost feverishly flushed, and Edward felt a pang at the thought that James had won her over so easily, even though he was only toying with her affections. Edward was almost ashamed for his friend. But this feeling was balanced by the thought that it was the woman’s fault if she was taken in by a man like James.

The Simpsons’ servants had found an ideal spot for the picnic at the edge of the forest, near the enchantingly situated Lake Staz. A few charcoal-colored wading birds, alarmed at the party’s arrival, swam away across the calm water. After briefly admiring the surroundings, the group, laughing and talking, settled on blankets and beach chairs. The servants withdrew discreetly to a place where they would not be disturbing the ladies and gentlemen, yet near enough so they could quickly return when summoned.

Suddenly, before they’d really settled down, Kate’s closest friend, Myriam Shuttleworth, attracted everyone’s attention. She was waving her arms wildly and emitting sharp cries. Of course, under the circumstances, that was the worst thing she could have done. For it induced the bee attracted by her flowery perfume to actually sting her. Myriam had a hard time recovering from the scare, the painful sting, and the fact that her husband hadn’t even been capable of chasing away a bee. For him, it signified the end of a carefree outing. He suggested to his wife that he could take her back to St. Moritz and from there to Maloja. She angrily turned him down since they were already halfway to their goal.

Next a photograph was taken for which they all arranged themselves ceremoniously. James made funny faces and found it difficult to stand still, especially because the photographer was Kate’s husband, a total amateur at this art who was taking himself very seriously. James regretted that, with development of these easy-to-use cameras by the American company Eastman Kodak, every Tom, Dick, and Harry could take photographs. Like this philistine, for instance. It was quite another matter when an expert like James used one of the new cameras on his travels.

“We should have invited Segantini to come on the picnic with us,” James said, after the photo-taking seemed to have been going on forever. “He would have made a painting of us in the same amount of time this is taking.”

“Who is Segantini?” Robert Simpson snapped. His feelings had been hurt, James saw with satisfaction.

“Oh, just a neighbor in Maloja,” he mumbled, at which Myriam Shuttleworth’s husband burst out laughing.

“Robert, do you mean to say you’ve never heard of Segantini?” Mr. Shuttleworth continued, ensuring that every last person at the picnic became aware of the gap in Kate’s husband’s cultural knowledge.

“But he’s represented in every important exhibition. The Japanese pay huge sums of money for one of his paintings,” Mr. Shuttleworth said, still laughing.

“Well, it’s not quite like that,” Myriam said, correcting her husband. He enjoyed showing off in front of other people, but in their married life, he wasn’t such a smashing success. “You don’t hear much about the man in France, or in Italy. Do any important art critics write about him? Come on, leave poor Robert alone.” She patted Robert’s arm, but then took another swipe at her husband, which might have had something to do with the bee sting he had not defended her against. “Yes, there’s a lot being written about him. But it’s more about him as a person. People are simply fascinated by him. The way he looks, his lifestyle, his enormous strengt
h . . .
some people could take a leaf out of his book.”

No one failed to get her meaning. To move the conversation in a different direction, the gentlemen decided to uncork the champagne.

In the course of the picnic, Robert Simpson proved to be especially skillful at that. Kate played hostess and dished out the food packed by the hotel, which included cold meat pastries,
Bündnerfleisch
, and
Speck
, a type of pork, for the very hungry. As she went around distributing the plates, she added her own comments to each of the conversations she heard.

Edward, for his part, involved Betsy in conversation when he saw James sitting down on the grass next to Mathilde. He was surprised how easily Betsy was won over by his considerate behavior. She was not only lively and interested in almost everything, she was bubbling with energy. It took some effort, but he managed to keep his eye on James, who seemed to be furthering his cause with some success. In any case, he had been holding Mathilde’s hand for quite a while already—this was only possible because Edward had placed himself so that Betsy had her back to them as she and Edward talked. She seemed to be enjoying herself, finding the conversation with Edward most stimulating.

“Have you ever gone on a real trek in the mountains here?” she was just asking him.

Edward shook his head, but said he thought it was a wonderful idea.

“Many of the locals offer themselves as guides,” Betsy went on, “and I’ve decided to make the climb from Maloja up to Lej Lunghin, the source of the Inn River. Nearby there’s a beautiful trail to the Muottas Muragl. There’s supposed to be a fantastic view from up there—across the entire valley and all the lakes. I just have to make sure that Mathilde won’t be left alone. She has been prescribed several medical treatments at the mineral springs in St. Moritz, but,” and here she turned around to look, “someone has to keep an eye on her. I have to bring her back home to her parents and fiancé safe and sound.”

“And she’s probably just fallen for our dear James,” said Kate, who had come to offer them some cheese and fruit. “You can’t begrudge her that. But maybe it’s the effect of the champagne. I had no idea she was already engaged.” She laughed brightly. “But complicated stories are far more interesting than simple ones.” She turned suddenly serious and put a small consoling hand on Betsy’s shoulder. “You mustn’t worry, Betsy, I’ll still be here. If you want to climb the mountains, you can do it at any time.”

She turned briefly to Edward. “Wouldn’t you like to accompany Betsy? I couldn’t imagine any more pleasant company for a hike in the mountains.” And beaming cheerfully, she added, “I’ll gladly offer my services as chaperone for Mathilde. I certainly don’t intend to scrabble up any mountains. My athletic ambitions lie elsewhere. I promise you, Betsy, I’ll guard your niece with my life.”

Andrina was sulking. Wasn’t a luxury hotel like this supposed to see to it that its guests were satisfied and content? To fulfill every wish of theirs before they’d even uttered it aloud? And now she’d been told that she would not be permitted to go with Mrs. Simpson’s servants to the picnic at Lake Staz—when Mrs. Simpson herself had suggested it! She’d told Andrina she was a nice girl and knew the local area better than her own servants. And she told her to ask if she might be excused from her job for that one day. But the head housekeeper, Signora Capadrutt, had raised her barely visible blonde eyebrows and given her a penetrating look.

“Even if it were your day off, Andrina,” she said at last, “even then I would forbid it. And remember this for the future, hotel employees are not to speak to the servants of the guests, and they certainly may not accompany them on excursions. I thought you knew the regulations. Apparently I shall have to explain this matter to Mrs. Simpson too.”

Andrina knew full well that Signor Robustelli would not change the rules governing hotel personnel for her sake, no matter how much he liked her. If she didn’t want to let herself be ordered around, she couldn’t remain a chambermaid in this hotel. It had once seemed like a heavenly Jerusalem to her, but that feeling had worn off a bit. In any event, it seemed advisable for her to concentrate on the here and now, and to depend on her own common sense rather than some divine Providence.

Alpenstich
, Pneumonia

Sunday came, but Gian wasn’t in church. Nika waited for him in vain. And Segantini didn’t come either. It worried her that Gian hadn’t come; that Segantini wasn’t there surprised no one. He didn’t go to church, even though the Protestant minister, Camille Hoffmann, was his friend.

Nika’s mind wasn’t on the sermon. She understood as little about the righteousness of God as about his mercy. Afterward, she returned to the house with Benedetta and the family. She hoped she might have the chance to go up to Grevasalvas on her own that afternoon to see how Gian was doing.

“I wonder if something is the matter with Gian,” Benedetta said, spooning up some rabbit stew. Her voice sounded worried but none of the other family members appeared to be upset. Aldo was picking his teeth—using the pointed end of a little twig that he’d pulled off the bushes in front of the house, having first removed its leaves. He pushed his black hat back off his forehead, and held his plate out for another helping of rabbit stew, which was so thoroughly overcooked that the meat fibers got stuck in one’s teeth.

“He probably just didn’t feel like going to church,” he said, “and up there you can always find an excuse. Sometimes the cows get away; that’s just how it is. I’m sure he’ll come down when he starts to miss us.”

Andrina and Luca laughed.

“That’s just like Gian, always a little different from the others. Let him be. He does his own thing, and he likes it that way,” Luca added. “Besides, there’s something I want to say. Gian herds the cows and he isn’t much use for anything else. But I want to earn some money and not be stuck here forever. Signor Robustelli from the hotel has already gotten Andrina a job, and he’s going to help me too.”

Andrina smiled proudly.

The whole village knew that Signor Robustelli was passionately interested in the construction of the railroad and knew everything about it. But she, Andrina, had plucked up the courage to ask him whether he would be willing to talk to her brother who wanted to find a job as a railroad worker and was eager to get Signor Robustelli’s personal advice. Achille Robustelli had said, “Very well, Andrina, have him come to see me. I’ll see what I can do.”

She looked at Luca and nodded her encouragement.

“In any case,” said Luca, picking up the thread again, “they’re just building the stretch between Reichenau and Thusis, and with Signor Robustelli’s help, I’ll probably be able to get a job as a construction worker with the railroad company. The work is hard; they can’t use weaklings, but,” and he showed them his muscles, “they’ve got the right man in me.”

His father was pleased and smiled so broadly that one could see where the teeth were missing in the back of his mouth. Yes, indeed. This was his son! But Benedetta’s expression, as always, indicated to everyone her thoughts that good beginnings usually come to bad ends. Everyone looked at her in amazement as she now not only made her usual face but actually spoke. “Then just be careful that your muscles aren’t bigger than your brain. This sort of work is not just hard labor, but a lot of the workers die. Almost two hundred were killed during the construction of the Gotthard Tunnel.”

“That was more than ten years ago,” Aldo said.

“And besides, that was a tunnel,” Andrina added. She didn’t want to see her efforts to get Luca a job wasted because of Benedetta’s eternal objections.

“All this sounds like a silly idea put into his head by Robustelli,” Benedetta replied emphatically. “And I know you’re involved. The two of you gave Luca the idea!”

Andrina jumped up from the table in anger.

“What are you saying? Signor Robustelli offered to help Luca because I asked him to, what’s the problem with that? Don’t you understand that Luca doesn’t want to stagnate in this dump where the winter snow suffocates everything? The rich people come here to enjoy themselves in the summer, they squander their money, and we don’t get anything out of it! Absolutely nothing. How far did you get with all your work and drudgery? Look at yourself, always wearing the same black skirt. You don’t even have a mirror. And look at the pot standing there with the skinny little rabbit. Do you have any idea what the guests in the hotel eat? Things you haven’t even heard of.”

Benedetta got up and slapped her daughter in the face.

“Sit down, the both of you,” Aldo said in a loud voice, “and stop talking. I’m proud to have Luca taking part in building the future of this country. And that’s that.”

Andrina grimaced, but was silent. Only Benedetta refused to be silenced.

“The future. The future? He’ll be working on someone else’s future, not his own. His life will be as miserable as ever. It’ll get worse. They’ll work him to the bone, till he’s burned out. The workers will never ride on the railroad they build.”

“You can talk as much as you want,” Luca shouted. “I’m going to do what I want. The future belongs to the workers, to industry! Not to the farmers. In Italy, the workers are on strike fighting for their rights. But here,” he swept his spoon off the table, “children will keep going barefoot, hungry, and miserable for a long time. They’ll be peddling bunches of alpine roses to the ladies and gentlemen being carried on mule-back up the mountains in exchange for pennies.”

“So, go, do what you want,” Benedetta said. “But now somebody has to go up to Grevasalvas to check on Gian.”

Nika nodded to indicate that she’d go. After Benedetta filled the tin canister that Aldo usually took to work with rabbit stew and polenta for Gian, Nika slipped out to make the journey.

Nika could have picked a different way to go. But she chose this one. It led up to the Hotel Belvedere past Segantini’s house. You could also climb up to Grevasalvas from the Chalet Kuoni. The coziness radiated by the big wooden house gave Nika a pang. Segantini must feel comfortable here, in the circle of his family. They said he owned porcelain dishes and silver cutlery with the monogram
GS
engraved on it. The family was probably still sitting at the table eating, he, his wife, and the four children. If he saw her passing by his window now, he would not let on in any way that that he had gone to see her in the hotel gardens. So why didn’t she try to avoid him? After all, he had taken her out of the laundry because he needed a model for a painting that had nothing to do with her. How was he any different from the farmer who used her to work on his land?

The door of the house swung open. Three laughing boys came out: Gottardo, Alberto, Mario. Giuseppina had told her their names; gradually, Nika was getting to know the people who lived in Maloja. There weren’t that many, all in all. She waited for Bianca, Segantini’s youngest child, but she didn’t come out. Nika could have kicked herself. Obviously, she’d been hoping to cross paths with him, but instead of him, she saw all the things he had that she didn’t have: a family, a house, a sense of belonging. And he also had a homeland.

She felt for the locket hidden under her blouse. It reminded her that she was determined to find her own place—her homeland, her family. Each day was just a part of the journey, part of the long road she would have to travel. But it was a beginning.

Carrying the lukewarm metal canister with Gian’s Sunday dinner, she walked quickly past the house. The boys called out a greeting. Nika didn’t turn around at first because there were tears in her eyes. But then, she did turn around, and saw Segantini standing in the doorway of his house. He raised his hand; for a moment it hovered motionless in the air, then he let it drop. He looked massive in his dark suit.

Dumb
straniera
, she thought, you’re a foreigner.

In his life as well.

It was hot. Nika felt the sun warming her thick hair right down to the roots. Tiny drops of sweat formed on her forehead and at the back of her neck. The path led upward, and there was no shade. The light was dazzlingly bright, and the mountain peaks on the other side of the lake were sharply silhouetted against the sky: Piz Roseg, Piz Corvatsch, and Piz da la Margn
a . . .

How lonely Gian must feel up here.

As she climbed higher, she saw the few huts of Grevasalvas silent in the sun. Occasionally the sound of a cowbell reached her, as unreal as if in a dream. Up here, there were no trees; everything was rock and grass. A brook ran through a meadow with glowing yellow buttercups, a sea of sky-blue forget-me-nots, gentian, houseleek, Alpine pinks, and some scattered rose-colored orchids. Farther on, nearer the huts, she spotted blue monk’s hood.

The Biancottis’ four light-brown cows were in the overnight pasture near the hut, which Gian had fenced in with wooden posts and wire. So he hadn’t driven them anywhere that morning.

Nika found him on the cot inside the hut in a feverish sleep. The hay-stuffed sack that served as a mattress had slipped halfway off the bed frame, and the matted wool blanket was on the floor. His limbs were shivering in the cold, and the light-brown hair that grew in whorls, which she often wanted to mess up with her fingers, clung damply to his forehead. Nika sat down on the stool next to the cot and took his hot hand. He woke suddenly from his restless sleep, but didn’t immediately recognize her, even seemed afraid. Nika brushed the hair from his forehead, covered him again with the blanket, and went to get a pitcher of water.

Gian closed his eyes and let her sit by his bedside. As she washed his face like a little child’s, he seemed to recognize her. His face was so hot that the towel she dipped in cold water and placed on his forehead warmed up even as she was holding it there.

His fever was dangerously high—you didn’t have to be a doctor to know that. But Nika could never have managed to take him down to Maloja by herself. She rinsed two rags, and wrapped them, still damp, around his legs to draw out the fever, and gave him water to drink. From his confused words, she gathered that he had had a dream, but in his feverish mind, the dream and reality were all jumbled together. He had seen Segantini and Nika together, he mumbled. He seemed very distressed about what he’d seen, but his thoughts were confused and made no sense.

Tears came to Nika’s eyes, for she didn’t know how she could help him. Then, with his hand still in hers, he fell asleep. His face softened, and his lips, slightly parted, trembled every time he exhaled with a sighing sound. Nika wept because she had never seen him so exhausted and confused and because she was so very fond of him. At that moment, it seemed as if Gian was a piece of her homeland, Gian, now so fragile and sick. Just knowing him had made the risk she’d taken in leaving the place where she’d grown up worthwhile.

She turned around with a start as the wooden door of the hut opened with a creaking, grating noise and Luca and Aldo entered the room. Nika, accustomed to making room for others and becoming invisible, got up so that the two could get close to Gian’s cot.

So they really were worried, although it was probably only because of Benedetta’s persistent urging that they’d made their way up to the hut. Whatever complicated emotions they had about each other, they were a family, each inextricably part of it and responsible for the others.

Quietly, Nika left the hut and sat down on the bench outside. The two men would bring Gian down to the village. Not a good day for her. Either you’re part of a family or you’re not.

“It’s
Alpenstich
, pneumonia,” Benedetta said. “We don’t need to call the doctor. That would cost more money than we have and will be of no use anyway. Either Gian will make it, or he won’t. Torriani, who also has cows up on the mountain, and whose milk Gian used to bring down, stopped by here a while ago. He told us that Gian had pains in his chest and was coughing. So Aldo and Luca finally decided to climb up.”

Benedetta was sitting at the kitchen table, brushing away some imaginary crumbs. She pushed a bowl of milky coffee toward Nika.

“Rabbit stew is not the right thing for him now.” She looked at the canister Nika had brought back, unopened, and then to the closed door behind which they had laid Gian on his old bed.

“Torriani is going to take care of the cows now. Who else is supposed to do it now that Luca is leaving?”

Nika nodded in a daze.
Alpenstich
was a matter of life or death. How were they going to help him get better? There had to be something they could do to fight the fever! How could Benedetta sit there so unmoved?

As if she’d read Nika’s mind, Benedetta went on, “You know, I’ve lost a lot of children already, two girls, Arietta and Mirta, right after they were born, and one boy, Elio. He was a treasure, a ray of sunshine for three beautiful years. Then came Gian, Luca, and Andrina. After that, only miscarriages. One day you may know what that’s like. Nothing’s ever going to make you forget that. It changes you. So, no, I’m not going to let my Gian just lie there like that—which is what you may have been thinking. There’s an old woman in Stampa who knows a lot about plants. She makes a medicine from monk’s hood that works against fevers. She sells the stuff around here. But you have to be careful with it. Monk’s hood is poisonous. It’s not something to play around with. Not just anyone can brew a medicine like that.”

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