Read Portrait of a Girl Online
Authors: Dörthe Binkert
“I think I’ll go see Betsy first,” James said.
“I think I’ll go see Mathilde first,” Edward said at the same instant.
“Edward understands Mathilde much better than I do,” James was saying as he and Betsy were drinking tea in the lobby of the Spa Hotel Maloja. There was waltz music in the background.
“The trio that usually entertains here in the afternoons plays abominably,” Betsy remarked. “Don’t be so sad,” she said to him. “It doesn’t become you.”
“Besides, Betsy, Edward talks about her so enthusiastically that I’m gradually beginning to wonde
r . . .
“I feel comfortable with him,” Betsy said curtly.
“You realize, don’t you, Betsy, that my friend Eddie and I are competitors for your attentions?” James gave her an appealingly boyish smile.
“But I asked you to meet me because of Mathilde,” Betsy said. “I’d like to save her any more confusion and unnecessary pain. I don’t know what happened between you and her; I know only that it has bothered and tormented her. And guessing from what Kate Simpson told me, whatever happened is not a trifling matter, but something compromising for my niece. I have to assume that you exploited Mathilde’s naïveté in a not very nice way. I wanted to see you for two reasons. First, I want to ask you how seriously I should take whatever happened between you and Mathilde, and second, Mathilde wants to see you, and she wants to see you now, right now, before her fiancé arrives. He has assured her of his love, and that he will stand by her even against the objections of his parents, and he knows nothing about your affair. Perhaps that will explain why it was so urgent that I see you. I can’t keep Tilda from seeing you, or from loving you. But I appeal to your decency, if you have any. I expect you to support Tilda, and to encourage her to return to her fiancé. I also expect you to tell her that you don’t want anything from her, and that she cannot expect anything from you, in spite of all that has happened.”
The orchestra had meanwhile broken into a fiery gypsy tune.
How about that, thought James, a good-bye present from Kate. What she can’t have no one else should have either. The consequences of his insignificant affair with her were really getting to him. “I can calm her down, Betsy. To be quite frank, I did not deflower your niece. Though I’m not sure that Mathilde would have protested greatly had it come to that. Nevertheless, I can assure you that it never went that far. As for my talking to her, I can’t let you dictate exactly what I will say.”
“So you don’t want to give up Mathilde? You know how much the girl is in love with you and that you won’t be able to make her happy,” Betsy said. She was very upset.
“Oh, you’re sure of that? Mathilde is a young woman who can stand on her own two feet. What she and I have to say to each other we can say without the help of outsiders.” James’s answer sounded unexpectedly sharp.
And all of this, thought Elizabeth Huber née Wohlwend, because I went hiking in the mountains one day, and left Mathilde alone. She was tired of this substitute motherhood. Thank God she didn’t have any children of her own. Now she didn’t even like James anymore. James, whom she had even thought of approaching in the fantasies she’d had about her new freedom. Oh well. Common sense had ruled against him from the beginning. Maybe it was time to go back to Zurich at last and devote herself to charity and fighting for widows’ and orphans’ pensions. But at the moment, that didn’t seem too tempting either.
Besides. Betsy sighed. What should she do with her vaunted independence? What, after all, was a woman without a man? The question was harder to answer than she expected. She could expand her intellectual horizons or get absorbed in some specialized field, but those ideas crossed her mind without arousing much enthusiasm. After all, she was already well educated. Well, it was all wide open; there were lots of possibilities.
While Betsy was pondering this, James Danby was looking toward the other end of the lobby. The last sighs of the violin had just faded into a pianissimo. He let her have the last word.
“Too bad,” she said, “that we’re separating on this note.”
The evening with Andrina had been a complete success, even though Achille Robustelli had not bought her a dress for the occasion of the dance. Not because he was stingy, but he thought it would give her the wrong idea. He didn’t want to buy Andrina, but to win her—and perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, to ask her to marry him. Andrina herself had hinted that she would be interested in a serious relationship, and she was not only vivacious and pretty, she was also hardworking and strong willed. Achille liked that. It was possible that she would turn out to be a bit too ambitious, but he was not intimidated by a woman who knew what she wanted. On the contrary, his mother had always been a strong woman, even if, while her husband was still alive, she acted as if she were subservient. Achille could simply not imagine that he would be happy with a woman who worshiped him and had no mind of her own. Like Bice, for instance, who enormously admired Segantini and always put her own interests last.
Segantini was pretty overbearing, Achille thought now. That had never occurred to him before, even though some of the people who had been guests at the Segantini home had spoken of it. It was interestin
g . . .
After his short talk with Segantini about Nika, he saw the painter as—well—as somewhat arrogant.
But Achille’s thoughts soon returned to Andrina. She was really a talented dancer, a big plus for a woman, he decided with satisfaction. She was musical, had spirit and endurance. And flushed from the exertion of dancing, she had seemed even more sensuous than usual.
Lost in pleasant fantasies about the future, Achille was pulled back to reality by the sound of knocking on his office door. He called out a hearty “Come in” and was surprised to see Fabrizio Bonin, and not Andrina, step into his office. The young man closed the door behind him.
“Good morning,” Robustelli said, rising from his chair and walking toward him. “Please take a seat. I hope the interview with Segantini was interesting for you too? In any case, I’d like to thank you again for helping out as interpreter.”
Bonin nodded. Yes, he had found the interview most stimulating and from the start had gotten along well with James Danby.
“I have you to thank for letting me make a very pleasant acquaintance, Signor Robustelli,” he said. “Mr. Danby and I accidentally met again at the opening of the Palace Hotel. We talked a long time with Count Primoli about photography. James Danby, like me, is a journalist, and we share many points of interest. I have you to thank for a new friend.”
Robustelli was pleased. He liked helping people get to know one another. One nice thing about his job at the hotel was that he had the chance to meet so many different individuals. Arranging introductions between them was something he enjoyed.
“I would like to ask you for a favor, Signor Robustelli,” Bonin said, with an embarrassed smile. “May I inquire about the young woman who helps the gardener? I’ve seen her a few times at work. She is rather shy and avoids the hotel guests, but she seems to be quite an unusual person. I have never dared to speak to her, although I’ve seen her now and then talking with Segantini. She has probably known him for a while.”
Achille Robustelli rummaged about in his drawer and finally came up with his silver cigarette case. He offered Bonin a cigarette. A difficult story, with the girl, he thought. Actually, he ought to consider it a good thing for her to finally emerge from her cocoon and come into contact with others besides Segantini. In spite of that, he wasn’t particularly pleased by the fact she had drawn Bonin’s eye. Would the attention of a hotel guest be helpful for Nika? Robustelli decided, almost grimly, that it would not be. Even if a connection was made, there was no future in it for her.
Strangely, he was suddenly no longer in a good mood, and quite out of character, he answered the man, unwillingly, almost coldly. “I hired the young woman, but we don’t know much about her. She isn’t from Maloja. Two young fellows from the village found her, injured, up in the mountains and brought her here. She was probably headed elsewhere, but since she obviously had no money and no home, she stayed here. That’s all I can tell you.”
Robustelli closed his cigarette case emphatically.
Bonin nodded. He was surprised at the harsh tone of the reply. Robustelli was normally such a pleasant man. “Thanks, anyway,” he said. “You were able to give me quite a bit of information. And please forgive my curiosity.”
Achille Robustelli went back to work. Andrina had promised to come by at the end of the day. He hoped to ask her more about Nika, who was, after all, living with Andrina’s parents. And now the young Bonin was interested in her too. Things were getting more and more interesting. Why couldn’t Nika make a connection with a normal man, a cook, a coach driver, a waiter—someone who could give her a quiet and safe future?
“I found the place,” Segantini said. He sounded elated.
“Which place?” Nika asked.
“The source, the spring. The place. The setting for the picture you’ve inspired. Come, I’ll show you.”
“Please come back for me at noon. I’m working now.”
He frowned. “At midday I’m at home.”
“So don’t come,” she said.
He had searched for a long time to find a spot that matched what he saw in his mind’s eye. Since he had seen Nika looking at her reflection in the waters of the lake in Sils, he had been pursued by this idea of painting a similar image. Now he’d found the backdrop he wanted.
Nika walked silently along beside Segantini as he took the path up to the Belvedere. They were working again on the hill above the pass, where the Count de Renesse had intended to build a medieval-style castle for himself. The tower was now going to be completed, and the annex was to be turned into a hotel.
The path snaked between mountain pines and alpine roses. Nika walked in the shade; Segantini on the sunny side of the path. Then he veered off the path, which wound up to the left of the tower, and walked straight ahead, farther into the woods. Nika followed him over knotted roots, moss, and dead branches. Boulders blocked their way; the scent of pine resin filled the air. In the distance, she could hear the roaring of a waterfall, the sound loud and bright. The alpine roses were almost finished blooming; yet among the dark-green bushes creeping over the ground, a few splendid red blooms still gleamed here and there.
“Where are you going?” Nika asked. “The woods are getting more and more dense and wild.”
“Soon,” Segantini called back to her, without slowing down, “we’ll be there soon.”
They weren’t far from the Belvedere, and yet it was as if they were diving into a world that no living being had ever set foot in before. Not a single bird could be heard; the humid midday air felt heavy. Segantini stopped abruptly.
He felt hot too. He took off his jacket and vest, and stood facing her in his white shirt, running his fingers through his damp curls. Yet his dark eyes seemed to barely notice her. He was enthusiastic about this unusual place, which had been created, eons ago, by the glaciers of the Bernina mountains, around the time the ice age was coming to an end. The melting masses of ice had worked their way westward, creating the Engadine, pushing scree and rocks before them. The gravel and stones sank into cracks, and with a grinding power, aided by melting snow and ice, they created deep, round pits filled with the water—like this one.
Le marmitte dei giganti
, a giant’s kettle,” he said. “Look at what the glaciers created. Just look at that.”
Nika stepped closer; he took her hand, and she bent over the deep pool.
“Come,” he said, pulling her onward. “There are more of these; I’ve picked another one for the picture.” He was familiar with every feature of the landscape here, every stone.
He was still holding her hand. His shirt gleamed white, and beneath it, she sensed his body was strong, powerful.
Nika closed her eyes. Why? Why did she love him?
Segantini, joyful at finally having found the spot for his picture, drew her to him. But as soon as he felt her body against his, he let her go again. He showed her the pool that he had chosen.
Nika shuddered as she looked into the cloudy water, which seemed to go deep down into the center of the earth. The pool was surrounded by bushes and overhung with bunches of grass that reminded her of hair. Where the grass extended across the water’s surface, it was softened and rotting. At the water’s swampy edge, an alpine rose spread a last touch of pink. Trees formed a dark circle around the place. To the left of the pool was a granite boulder, worn by time and weather, with green and brown vines growing on its surface. Moss and ferny weeds forced their way out of all the cracks in the rock.
She leaned over the water. Mosquitoes and water striders flitted soundlessly over the dark surface. The farther forward she leaned, the more like a mirror the water became. And mirrored in the black background was the bright sky, the tree trunks and their leafy crowns—a faithful reflection of the light in the dark. Nika reached out an arm. She saw herself, her hair gleaming in the dark water; her arm and hand reached out, and the deep, calm, and clear surface mimicked her movement, without any distortion.
Nika stood motionless. She grasped Segantini’s hand. A small white cloud swam into the picture and sailed out again.
A light breath of wind rippled across the surface of the water. It appeared again on the boulder as a trembling play of shadow and light. In silence, Segantini pointed. Fresh light-green grass was forcing its way up next to dead branches and the corpse of a bird covered with thousands of teeming ants.
“Look over there,” Segantini finally said, “at the boulder. There, on the right, it ends in a flat stone step. That’s the spot where you’ll stand and be reflected for my painting.”
She let go of his hand, climbed up over the boulder, and came to the flat step. She was now standing directly across from him. She put her head back, looking up at the sky, into the bright light. She squinted, and looked again at Segantini. Then she slipped out of her long black skirt, took off her blouse, and stood naked on the other side of the water. She raised her hands to loosen the knot of hair at the back of her neck. Bending down, she grabbed the long reddish-blonde hair and held it out of her face so she could see herself, her reflection, better.
There she stood, on a three-hundred-million-year-old rock, looking into the depths of a glacial pool, an opening in the body of the earth.
“Look!” she called over to Segantini. “Just look at all the things crawling around in this marshy hollow!” She shook herself, laughed. “Can you see that creepy thing there? The little monster swimming around—I can’t tell if it’s a grasshopper with the tail of a fish or a little fish with a grasshopper’s head!”
Segantini stood there as if rooted to the spot and looked in disgust at the strange insect. Then he pulled on his vest as if he was suddenly cold, and said hoarsely, “We have to go back.”
“But it’s beautiful here!” Nika called over to him from the other side.
Segantini said nothing. He was already fleeing.