Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (2 page)

A Palace at the End of the World

The Spa Hotel Maloja was preparing for the 1896 summer season. Waiters, cooks, porters, chambermaids, and laundresses were arriving from all the villages of the Engadine and the surrounding valleys of Bregaglia and Valtellina, as well as nearby areas of the newly founded Kingdom of Italy. Achille Robustelli, the assistant director, who was in charge of the personnel, directed the proceedings as if he were conducting a difficult symphony. He swept through the hallways in his black suit and seemed to be everywhere at once.

Salaries had been arranged a long time ago, and food and lodging were free. But not all the employees received as princely a wage as the chef de cuisine, Signor Battaglia, whose pay was set at nearly four hundred Swiss francs per month, roughly twice as much as a schoolteacher. The waiters would get fifty francs per month.

On the other hand, Andrina, as a chambermaid, would have to be satisfied with twenty francs per month. This was what Signor Robustelli informed her when he received her in his office. Perhaps the black dress, white apron, and little starched cap—the uniform provided by the hotel—was supposed to be a consolation.

“But since we have a well-to-do clientele,” Signor Robustelli added quickly, smiling and turning his signet ring as if to conjure up some magic, “you can count on an additional thirty francs in tips each month. So it doesn’t look bad at all.”

Better yet, Andrina was informed that she would be sharing an attic room in the hotel with another chambermaid. That was a triumph! She wouldn’t have to sleep in a narrow room with Gian and Luca any longer. Luca was always ordering her around, asking her about everything she did, and in general treating her like a little girl, even though she was already eighteen and only two years younger than him. Before that, she’d slept in her parents’ bedroom, which hadn’t been good at all. At the end of each day, her father would try to wait until he thought she was asleep to lie down on her mother again. But Andrina hadn’t fallen asleep easily since kindergarten. She hated having to listen to her mother’s soft sighs floating up to the low wooden ceiling and hanging there.

And now it was going to be Andrina, of all people, the youngest—whose birth was followed only by miscarriages—who would live at the most elegant hotel in the Alps, perhaps in the whole world. She’d be living high up in that immense palace with the cupola on top of the ballroom, far above the three hundred guest rooms, the dining halls, and the elegant lobby. She would live higher up than anyone else she knew, even Signor Robustelli, whom she’d just met.

Count de Renesse had built the hotel near the Maloja Pass summit, at an altitude of almost two thousand meters. He went bankrupt, and afterward many nasty rumors circulated about the hotel, but none of them were true. In nearby St. Moritz, they claimed that the huge structure had sunk three feet into the swampy subsoil near the lake; that the fabulous heating plant, fed by giant coal-fired boilers, had exploded; and that the completely unique and innovative ozonizer, which ventilated the hotel, was circulating poisonous fumes to the guest rooms. What a lot of stories they told! But Andrina knew better, because her father had told her so. He’d been working at the hotel for years, doing repairs and carpentry.

Once, rumors spread in nearby towns that the hotel had been hit by a fever; at another point, it was alleged to be a gambling den. Nonsense, all of it. Twelve years after its opening, the Spa Hotel Maloja was still the most beautiful place one could imagine. Here, you were close to heaven. Yes, Andrina thought, the Spa Hotel Maloja was like a precious jewel sparkling in the clear light of the mountains, a heavenly Jerusalem that opened its gates only to the richest and most elegant—and to her, Andrina, the loveliest chambermaid of them all. She sensed a great future ahead of her.

Achille Robustelli took a sip of coffee and with a grimace pushed it aside. Lukewarm coffee was an insult to the palate! Then he glanced at the door Andrina had just vigorously closed behind her.

The carpenter, Aldo, had sent Andrina, his daughter, to see him. She was looking for work and Aldo had thought the signore might have a job for her. Well, he certainly did. First of all, he still needed to fill some additional staff positions, and secondly, Andrina was quite good-looking.

Achille Robustelli loved his profession. He’d gotten quite far—even if sometimes via detours. He came from a well-off middle-class family and had grown up in northern Italy, in Bergamo. For his father, who had fought valiantly at the Battle of Solferino and would have given his life for the Risorgimento, there had been no question about whether his only son Achille, born in 1865, would also take up a military career. For his part, Achille had never dared oppose his father’s will. Nevertheless, a few years later, when his only sister died, and shortly thereafter his father also passed, he was not unhappy to be able to honorably give up military service in order to take care of family affairs.

Constantly handling weapons did not suit his temperament. And although his talent for leadership had led to his speedy ascent to officer rank, his sensitive nature was not the type usually appreciated in the army. In addition to his talent for organization, his interest in technical matters, and his gift for thinking strategically, he also had one totally unreasonable passion: he loved playing cards for money. This was another reason he felt happy to get away from his army comrades.

It wasn’t long before Achille decided that a career in the hotel business would make the best use of his many talents. To his mother’s dismay, he went to try his luck in Milan, a city that offered more possibilities than Bergamo.

He worked his way up rapidly in Milan. He was adept at spotting problems and always kept a cool head. He knew how to deal with the staff and had a knack for handling the guests. He didn’t suck up to people, but he was willing to listen to what was on their minds, no matter what their status. He was discreet, and people respected him for that. Meanwhile, his own needs fell by the wayside, at least as far as his love life was concerned.

His mother, having lost both husband and daughter, was glad of this. She had done everything in her power to allow her son, who was named after the Greek hero, Achilles, to go through life brilliantly and unhurt. His sole vulnerability, she thought, was falling under the influence of a woman besides herself.

Then Robustelli met a hotel director from the high-altitude Engadine valley, known for its beautiful chain of lakes, who convinced him that he had a great future up in the Swiss mountains. The valley had superb hotels both in St. Moritz and nearby Maloja, which attracted the aristocracy, not to mention rich and powerful people from all over the world. And so Achille Robustelli, without any guilty feelings whatsoever, skipped a visit to his mother in Bergamo in order to meet with the hotel director in the Engadine. There, he was told that the Spa Hotel Maloja, which had been shaken by scandals surrounding its founder, needed a reliable man to act as right hand to the hotel director.

Robustelli accepted the position. In the spring of 1888—he was all of twenty-three years old—he kissed his loudly protesting mother good-bye, despite her premonition that terrible things would befall him in a foreign country. Promising to return and visit her during the winter months when the hotel closed for the season, he moved to Maloja.

This year, like those that had come before, Robustelli would indeed spend the winter months in Bergamo. His mother, meanwhile, had gradually come to realize that a young woman in her son’s life could have its advantages. Perhaps falling in love might make him return to Bergamo, for example. But for that to happen, the woman had to be from Bergamo or its surroundings, and pass the test of her maternal scrutiny. The problem was that her son’s taste did not coincide with hers. Not one of the young women she introduced him to interested him, and she hadn’t approved of any of the women he had met and introduced to her.

Such were the thoughts going through Robustelli’s head as the pretty Andrina left his office. But it was time to get back to work. In his position, he couldn’t afford to daydream.

Segantini’s Dream

The day felt strange from the moment he opened his eyes. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to wake up from dreams that left him soaked in sweat, but today they’d been especially vivi
d . . .

Giovanni Segantini reached across the bed. Yes, Bice was there. She lay turned toward him. Only half-awake from his touch on her shoulder, she moved closer to him without opening her eyes. It was still early. Dawn was just breaking. Segantini didn’t like the half-light, especially not after waking from a nightmare. He took a deep breath. Gradually he began to make out the shadowy outlines of the bedroom furniture. Then, as morning came and the first rays of sunshine illuminated the Moorish-style carvings, his dream faded.

As a painter, Giovanni Segantini worked slowly and without making preliminary sketches. Moreover, he often repeated the same subjects. He even sometimes made drawings that replicated the final versions of his paintings. In his dream, though, one of his pictures had changed without any help from him. How dare a dream touch one of his paintings?

The canvas he’d dreamed of was one that depicted a purgatory of bluish ice surrounding lustful women. They were bad mothers, women whose breasts had remained dry, women who didn’t want to be mothers as destiny decreed. A poem by Luigi Illica, which he’d read and reread, had inspired him to create the painting. It was said to be a translation of an Indian text. The poet’s vision of an icy cold in which the depraved women, with naked breasts and frozen blue lips, were doing penance for their own coldness, had seized him. He’d been unable to let it go until he had transferred it to canvas—to the displeasure of his friend, patron, and dealer Vittore Grubicy, who did not like mythical figures. In fact, the two men had almost had a falling-out over it.

During the night, the painting had come alive in his dream. Its dead and barren winter landscape had turned verdant and green, and the cold skin of the women had come to life, rosy warm and pulsating. Voluptuously they had stretched, awaking from their icy rigidity. At that point, Segantini had woken up in horror.

His hand again wandered toward Bice lying next to him in bed. Of course she was there, at his side, the covers drawn up to her chin. She had given him four children, dedicated her life to him ever since she had been seventeen. How blonde and dainty she had been then, still half child herself. She was the sister of his friend Bugatti, who had allowed her to pose for
The Falconess
, which he’d painted in 1881. By then, Segantini was already twenty-three years old. It had been easy to fall in love with Luigia Bugatti. He’d asked her if she would like to stay with him. She’d said yes. He’d called her Bice, after the heroine in a novel he had liked.

He closed his eyes and rolled over, remembering. She had left behind everything when they set out from Milan together. Even her name. Soon no one knew anymore what her real name was. She had followed him all the way here into the high mountains, to Maloja. Her “Segante,” as she affectionately called him, who was drawn ever higher and farther away from the depressing lowlands. His wife and companion, how well she knew him, and how unreservedly she accepted him.

His mother, on the other hand, had hardly known him; she had died young. Yet, even though he had been only a little boy back then, he would recognize her if she stood before him today. She had been beautiful, not like the sunrise, or midday, but like a sunset in spring. That’s exactly how he would express it in his autobiography, like a sunset in spring. A tall figure, but always sickly after he’d been born. Not only did he almost die when she gave birth—there had to be an emergency baptism—but his mother had never really recovered. The treatments she’d received in Trient didn’t work. He had been five, if his memory was correct, when he’d lost her. She’d died, leaving him behind.

He imagined
The Falconess
would have appealed to his mother, given her descent from landed gentry of the Middle Ages who had produced and sent forth warlike soldiers of fortune. A long time ago.

Segantini rolled over again, back toward his wife, but Bice had already gotten up. The sheet next to him was cool, as if she had never lain there.

The lake lay calm and still in the afternoon light. So still that the young woman knelt down on the boat dock and, holding back her long hair, leaned far out over the mirrorlike surface to gaze at her face reflected in the unmoving water.

There were pebbles, fish. Light turquoise at first. Then the blue quickly became more intense, and she could no longer see the bottom. Nika had never seen water like this. The gurgling, bubbling mountain brooks; the roaring waterfalls, whose sound swelled in the spring; the small Alpine lakes that beckoned like clear blue eyes—they were different. This lake drew one’s gaze downward to the depths. It kept its silence, as did she.

Nika fell into such a deep sleep after Luca led her to the barn, that Gian, coming later that evening to ask her whether she was hungry, found her still unmoving and left quietly. When she woke up around noon the next day, she found a piece of bread and a bowl of milk next to her. Her bandaged foot still hurt, but the sharp stabbing pain had lessened; it was more like a dull thumping. With a sudden fear, Nika put a hand to her throat—ah, her necklace was still there. And with her fingertips she could feel the soft engraving on the locket: a rose in full bloom. She had gazed at it so often she could have drawn it with her eyes closed.

She hadn’t been careful. Gian and Luca, and the woman, too, had probably seen the locket. She mustn’t be that careless ever again. Carefully she buttoned the top buttons of her high-collared blouse. In Mulegns, where she had come from, she had had a hiding place, but here it would be smarter to wear the necklace concealed on her body.

For a long time Nika hadn’t known about the locket, not until the postmistress at the inn in Mulegns told her about it. Nika must have been around eight or nine then.

“I was the one who found you, seconds after the horses had been changed and the post coach had driven on,” the postmistress said. “The coach was going up over the Julier Pass to the Engadine. And they abandoned you, an infant, wrapped in a blanket with the locket and an envelope of money, right here at the Post Coach Inn, where all the travelers get out for a midday stopover and a bowl of soup.”

“What kind of locket?” Nika had asked, “I don’t have any locket.”

“I’m not surprised they didn’t give it to you,” the postmistress replied. “A foundling wearing jewelry—who ever heard of such a thing?” she laughed. “The farmer was raising a girl to work for her keep, not an elegant lady who’d spit on his head.” And with that she went inside, still laughing.

But Nika had waited patiently until, one day, the farmer and his family had all been invited to a wedding in the neighboring village. They had hardly left when she sneaked into the house and began to search. The farmer was poor. A table, a couple of chairs, a chest, a few beds that many had to share—there wasn’t much furniture. If the locket wasn’t in the chest, it could only have been hidden in the bedroom under the mattress.

Quickly she searched through the chest, and there indeed, under the shirts, socks, and woolen hats, she found a crushed box, and in it a golden chain with the locket. Tears welled up in Nika’s eyes as she held it in her hand. This was the only thing her parents had left her as a reminder of them. But still, they had left it with her. And that meant that she, Nika, had meant something to them.

The locket belonged to her, not to anyone else in the world, even if the farmer had taken it away from her. She slid the necklace into her apron pocket, put the empty box back, and neatly arranged everything in the chest.

During the winter, she slept in the house under the stairs; now in the summer she had a corner partitioned off from the animal stalls—neither of them a good place to hide her treasure. And so she wrapped the necklace in a rag and buried it behind the barn, marking the spot with a stone.

Nika trembled with fear whenever she thought that someone might have noticed that the necklace had disappeared, and yet from that moment on, she found consolation in the locket. Soon she no longer understood how she could have withstood the farmer’s heartless treatment of her without this comfort. Whenever she was beaten, whenever she was hungry, she thought of her secret jewel.

Now and then, when nobody was around on the farm, she would take the necklace from its hiding place, look at it, and carefully open the locket, eternally expecting a new miracle that might explain things. But each time, to her disappointment, she found inside only a small, folded piece of paper with something written on it. Nika did not go to school. But she vowed she would learn to read and write one day, so that she could find out what was written there.

She had first discovered the locket ten years ago. She’d been a little girl then; now she was a young woman. And even though she was stuck here in Maloja, she was grateful to Gian and Luca for having shown her some kindness. Carefully Nika hobbled out of the barn and across to the house, relieved not to encounter anyone, either inside or out.

She had had no choice but to accept the offer to stay a few days longer. She had no money for the post coach, and with her injured ankle she wouldn’t get very far walking. Yet the journey that lay before her was a long one. Italy—it was nearby and yet reaching it seemed like an unattainable dream.

Someone had attached a shelf above the sink where she washed. On it lay an old, hard piece of soap and a shard of a mirror. She propped the triangular fragment against the wall and ran her fingers through her thick hair. She didn’t dare use the comb lying next to the soap. Carefully she looked at herself. She was thin. Her chin jutted out prominently, and in spite of an early summer tan, you could tell she was fair skinned. Nika held a finger under the ice-cold water and wet her lips, watching herself like a stranger. A tongue, cautious and soft, appeared from between the stranger’s lips and licked off the drops of water. The face was her face. She hadn’t often seen her reflection in a mirror. Where she had grown up, people had other things to think about than what they looked like; they used their money for more important things than buying a mirror. She put her face so close to the mirror fragment that her features blurred and she could no longer recognize herself. The glass became fogged over from her breath. Her bluish-green eyes gleamed back at her as if out of a mist.

She started when someone entered the kitchen; quickly she stepped back from the sink. But it was only Gian, who came toward her slowly, his hand reaching out reassuringly, as if she were a frightened animal.

“Good thing you’re up,” he said. “You’ll have to stay here a while. The ankle won’t heal all that quickly, but I see you can already get about a bit. Come, I’ll show you the lake.”

She hobbled along beside him, out of the house and into the light of the afternoon. Gian guided her across the road and past the majestic hotel, which obstructed the view of the valley’s chain of lakes. Nika took Gian’s arm for support, and he, surprised and proud, supported her. No girl in Maloja had ever taken his arm or held his hand because he wasn’t “quite right,” sometimes falling to the ground with foam on his lips and jerking limbs. He knew that people talked, said the oldest of the Biancotti boys was possessed. But the Protestant minister kept explaining that it had nothing to do with possession, that it was just an illness, and that doctors couldn’t yet heal all illnesses.

When they arrived at the lake, Nika let go of Gian’s arm, and he realized that she wanted to be by herself.

“There’s a boat dock there,” he said. “You can put your hand in the water, and then you’ll feel how cold and clear it is. Will you find the way back by yourself?”

Nika nodded and knelt down on the dock.

When she got up again, she saw that an elegant carriage drawn by four horses was just driving into Maloja. A man leaned out of the open carriage window and turned around to look at her.

The one thing she noticed was his dark, thick, curly hair. Then the carriage was gone.

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