Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (3 page)

Segantini was returning from St. Moritz. Regardless of his financial situation, he liked certain luxuries. So today he’d ordered a carriage drawn by four horses to take him from Maloja, where he lived, to St. Moritz, a bigger town that was not much more than a half hour away. He’d met with Dr. Bernhard to tell him about an idea he’d been mulling over for quite a while already. The conversation had started at the bakery of Fritz Hanselmann, whose pastries they both loved, and then continued at the doctor’s house.

Segantini had a project in mind that he couldn’t put into effect by himself. At the next world’s fair, he wanted to exhibit a monumental panoramic painting that would show the world the incomparable beauty of the Engadine, the most beautiful valley in the Swiss Alps, in his opinion. But that wasn’t all; the painting was to be exhibited in a huge pavilion that he had envisioned. Visitors would climb up an artificial mountain peak, stroll along streams, hear the sound of cowbells, and be surrounded by paintings of the landscape. The fair was scheduled to take place in Paris in 1900.

Oscar Bernhard had listened to his friend’s idea closely, taking the time to grasp the extent of the concept and the amount of money that would be required to make something like this happen.

“You know how highly I think of you, Segantini,” he’d said after a few minutes, “and the longer I think about it, the more rewarding your idea seems, even though, you must admit, there’s something unrealistic about it.”

He’d paused to think some more. “Actually such a project would create a good deal of publicity in Paris for the Engadine. Hundreds of thousands of people will be attending the fair, indeed, millions from all over Europe and from oversea
s . . .
You’d have to stir up enthusiasm among the big hotel owners here and get their support. But I can’t think of a better way of attracting visitors and hotel guests to the valley.” He’d poured Segantini another cup of tea and looked at him in admiration.

“This shows that not only are you a great painter, but that you have very close ties and loyalty to the Engadin
e . . .

Segantini’s dark eyes had flashed, and with a proud, self-conscious gesture, he’d passed his right hand through his splendid hair. “You’re right. I love the mountains. In my panorama I’d like to paint a picture of nature that will make people fall silent in reverent awe.” The fire in his eyes was contagious.

Bernhard had nodded. Yes, indeed, this was the Segantini he knew. But he, himself, also had a vision, and his friend’s disclosures had inspired him to reveal something he had been thinking about for a long time.

“My dear Segantini, now it’s my turn to tell you about an idea I’ve been considering. I’m a physician, and I not only see a lot of patients in the summer, but all year long, since we now also have a winter season here in St. Moritz. Badrutt was right; there’s hardly another place that has as many days of sunshine in the winter as we do.” He laughed. “That fox. He vowed he’d reimburse traveling costs to guests at his hotel if his promises of winter sunshine were not fulfilled. Since that time, he’s been making twice as much as before!” He’d cleared his throat before continuing to confide his innermost thoughts to his friend.

“Hear me out. The sun is an enormous asset because it draws visitors, but it’s also important to medical science. The sun has the power to heal. That’s even truer here at this high elevation, where the air is clean. I have observed that wounds exposed to solar rays heal better. The tissues are regenerated more rapidly, and the wound dries more quickly.” He’d again cleared his throat.

Segantini had looked at him in surprise. This was a side of the doctor he didn’t know. Usually, he got to the point immediately.

“Don’t laugh, dear friend, if I use our superb dried meat as an example. It was this technique of drying beef in the sun long enough to turn it into our delicious
that inspired me. In the sun, the raw meat dries without rotting or spoiling. And so I started to think about something I call ‘heliotherapy.’ Wound healing through sun radiation. For instance, if you expose wounded individuals, or rather their wounds, to as much fresh air and sunshine as possible, then—according to my theory—the patients will recover more quickly and in a completely natural way. I suspect that, above all, tuberculosis would respond well to such a treatment. I’d like to show—” He’d interrupted himself. “You’re not a doctor, and I don’t want to bore you. But since you told me about your idea, I also wanted to tell you about mine.”

Segantini had assured him that he was interested. He had a curious mind, and as a self-taught man, he was anxious to fill any gaps in his knowledge. He had always planned for his children to grow up differently than he had and receive a better education. From the beginning, he had insisted on hiring a tutor who came to the house to teach them, even when he could hardly afford it.

“What you’re saying makes sense to me, Oscar. In your own way, you’ll be competing with the high-altitude clinics in Davos. I hope our dreams will bring us closer together. What else is there to sustain us if not our dreams, and what should we strive for if not for their realization?”

A New, Unfamiliar World

“Nothing will come of it, anyway,” Benedetta said, in the negative tone of voice that her daughter hated so much.

“And why not?” Andrina said, bristling. “Will there ever be a plan or idea that you agree with or approve of? Could you ever simply say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, what a good idea!

” Angrily, she pushed her polenta away. “You always make everything so difficult that it feels as if one’s apron pockets were filled with rocks. It
a good idea, and we’ll all benefit from it.”

Andrina looked at her father and Luca. Gian didn’t count, and neither did the girl they’d taken in.

“Say something, Father. I’ve been slaving away for you here without anyone really noticing.”

Old Biancotti just kept spooning up his polenta, his eyes hidden beneath the brim of his hat. He wore his hat even when he ate. It gave him a feeling of security and dignity.

He knew his wife, who was always against everything day in and day out, and he also knew his ambitious daughter Andrina.

“I just want to eat in peace and quiet,” was all he said. Luca took Andrina’s side.

“She’s right. Her idea will help us all. The stranger might just as well work while she’s here and eating our bread. It doesn’t look as if she had a lot of money hidden in her clothes, unless there were some jewels in that locket.”

Nika was frightened and instinctively held her hand over the locket hidden under her blouse. But to her relief, no one dwelt on it, and Luca went on, saying, “How is she ever going to go anywhere? In the hotel, they need laundresses. She’d earn something, could give us some of it, and save the rest until she can take the post coach back to where she came from or some other place.”

“And I would be making a good impression on Signor Robustelli,” Andrina added, “by finding him a worker.” She raised her bowl of cold milk to Luca in a toast.

“Who is Signor Robustelli?” Benedetta asked suspiciously.

“He’s the assistant director of the hotel, in charge of all the employees.” And he likes me, Andrina thought, not saying it aloud, and without having the slightest proof of it so far.

Gian looked over at Nika. “Would you like that? To work at the hotel and earn some money?”

“Why wouldn’t she like it?” Luca joined in, but Nika looked only at Gian and nodded.

No. There weren’t any gemstones hidden in her locket. In it was only a small, folded-up piece of paper with some writing on it, and she couldn’t read. The symbols were still strange to her, even though the postmistress had finally given in to Nika’s pleas and agreed to teach the girl the alphabet and some basic things about reading during secret visits, using the Bible she otherwise rarely took out of the drawer.

The postmistress had tapped each letter on the page with her finger, teaching them to her until Nika slowly and doggedly learned the sound of each one. The postmistress herself read only haltingly and tried to keep the lessons short, but Nika was an eager pupil who pushed her teacher mercilessly, soon wanting to go beyond the woman’s capabilities. “That’s enough!” the postmistress said one day, annoyed, and closed the pigskin-bound Bible. Nika would have loved to have taken the book so that she could work through it from beginning to end on her own. The stories seemed very exciting and suspenseful. But the Bible had disappeared into its resting place, the postmistress pushing the drawer shut with a relieved bang. And that had been the end of it.

At the table, after one more glance at Gian, Nika nodded again in agreement.

“So there you are,” Andrina said to her mother. “You’ll get used to it. And then later on you’ll be quite satisfied with the arrangement.”

In everyday matters, that might be true, Aldo thought. Yes, that’s what she was like, Benedetta. Without saying anything, he pushed his plate toward her, and with the wooden spoon she gave him more of the
. He liked cornmeal best when it was coarse grained. She really could cook well. This he’d never deny, although he never said thank you. He did carpentry; she cooked. After all, she never thanked him either for doing his work, year in and year out. On the contrary, again and again she would bring up the subject of wanting to go back to Stampa, to the milder climate of the Bregaglia Valley. Up here, the winters were too severe, she complained. What else Benedetta thought or felt, no one really knew. Just as she never showed any enthusiasm, she also never expressed any strong feelings of anger, sadness, or exasperation.

“All right, then,” Aldo said and got up. “Andrina will mention the matter at the hotel. And then we’ll see what comes of it.”

Nika had never before had such a good life. She now ate at the table with the Biancottis as if she were a member of the family. She was going to be working in the hotel laundry, and for the first time in her life, she would be paid for her work. She’d have to give part of her pay to the farmer, but the rest she could put away, and one day she would have enough to buy a ticket for the post coach or the train. Small smoke clouds would rise from the locomotive steam stack and its shrill whistle would slice through the air just as the steel rails sliced through the landscape. And the world would be divided into the world that lay behind her and the world that lay before her.

One day, Nika thought, I’ll stand facing my mother. There is a place where I belong. Everybody belongs somewhere. The day will come when someone will recognize the rose on my locket and understand the message hidden inside.

Nika touched her ankle and gently moved her foot back and forth. Carefully in the dim light of the kerosene lamp, she rubbed it with the tincture Benedetta had wordlessly pressed into her hand.

In Mulegns she’d had to eat standing up. The food was passed out at the head of the table by those who were sitting down, and what was left was then passed down to the foot of the table, to her. Here, on the other hand, one could relax at mealtimes. Benedetta had even given her a brief inquiring look at dinner to see if she’d wanted some more. But she hadn’t dared to nod yes.

The farmer in Mulegns had been unpredictable, especially during mealtimes. Sometimes he would take off his belt. That meant something was bothering him or had made him angry. And she was always the first one he struck. The others would just sit there as if turned to stone. As if rooted to their chairs. If he wasn’t content with beating her, he would have a go at his own children. Reto, who was the same age she was, would wail and scream, “Why? What did I do?” and try to hide under the massive wooden table. That was stupid because then he got it even worse. Nika never asked, “Why me?” She didn’t even give the farmer the pleasure of whining, and she certainly didn’t scream or cry. When the old man beat all eleven of his children, then his hand would grow weary by the time he came to the last ones. But not with her, the foreign brat. He always started with her, while he was still full of anger and his arm wasn’t tired yet.

Then a few days would pass before he was again in a bad mood and full of anger. The beatings were a ritual for him the way going to church was for other people. It freed him for a moment of the week’s hardships and the relentless everyday existence that engulfed him. Once the storm had broken, a smile would come to his lips, which, in that gaunt face of his, seemed almost indecent, and he would order Hans, the eldest, to fetch him a beer.

Nika stroked the cows Gian had tied up in the barn. They were brown and dainty, the fur in their ears was as white as milk; their horns, gracefully curved. All four animals stood quietly, looking at her with their dark eyes. Steamy gusts of breath came from their nostrils. The heat of their bodies warmed the stable. Feeling safe in the familiar smell, Nika put out the lamp. The darkness would bring forth a new day. More than that, in fact: it would bring a new job and an unfamiliar world.

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