Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (4 page)

St. Moritz, Early June 1896

The morning was as fresh as a clean, unworn starched-and-ironed white shirt that you’ve just taken out of a dark closet. Edward Holbroke opened a window and breathed in the cold air until he felt a chill. The façade of the Pension Veraguth, where they were staying, was still in the shade. And St. Moritz was a sleepy nest that had yet to be cleaned out for the new season. Soon it would become a brilliant backdrop for the illustrious company arriving in the coming days and weeks from England, France, Germany, and Italy—the wealthy guests who, with their servants, would fill all the nearby grand hotels and villas.

The exotic attractions of a stay in this part of the Swiss Alps included the especially rousing effect champagne had at high altitude and the mountain tours led by native guides, during which you could look directly into the face of nature, confronting its power and its precipitous abysses without any worry of falling prey to it. And those who were too afraid to explore, even with a mountain guide, could play golf or tennis, or shoot clay pigeons. The alpine air was healthy. The sun shone more often here than elsewhere, and the St. Moritz mineral springs helped relieve nervous weakness, anemia, and—so it was whispered—even barrenness. Milk cures and goat’s milk would make you as healthy as the local peasants, who supposedly had indestructible constitutions.

Edward yawned contentedly. He wasn’t concerned with any of that.

“Good morning, my dear fellow!”

His travel companion burst into the room without knocking, a sign of great familiarity, which also showed a certain lack of consideration.

“Well, how do you like the view from your window, Eddie? Last night right after our arrival, I was too tired to think much about the place.” The young man went over to where his friend stood by the wide-open window and gestured broadly, as if he wanted to describe the entire landscape and at the same time dismiss it. “But now I see where you’ve brought me. You don’t seriously think that I’d want to spend several weeks here?”

“The lake, the mountains, the fresh air—isn’t all that enough for you?”

James Danby gave his friend a contemptuous glance but said nothing. Instead, he dropped into the flowered easy chair next to the window and lit a cigarette.

“If I had told you that I wanted to study the high-altitude plants of the Engadine, you wouldn’t have come with me,” Edward said.

“You’d have been right about that. But you’re pulling my leg! Do you really intend to set forth with your collecting box? Tell me, will our stay feel like a children’s birthday party where we’re playing blindman’s bluff?”

“Come on, Jamie.” Edward closed the window and put on his jacket. “At least, let’s go and have breakfast before you leave. In any case, Marcel Proust liked this pension. And you might regret not staying on to play blindman’s bluff. In a couple of weeks, the most beautiful ladies of European society are going to arrive here. I heard that an English princess is coming for the opening of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. She might enjoy meeting you. Haven’t you always been on the lookout for a good catch? ‘Too bad you couldn’t meet him,’ I’ll say the
n . . .

Edward pulled his friend up out of the easy chair, took him by the arm, and opened the door. The aroma of café au lait came up from the ground floor of the pension and coaxed an almost agreeable smile to James’s lips, even though he always drank tea in the morning.

James Danby did not leave, although it wasn’t quite clear whether the thing that prevented it was the pleasures Edward promised or a sense of duty that, although not strongly developed, did make itself felt from time to time. Besides, he had to earn some money, and he’d promised the English newspaper he worked for that he’d write a story about Giovanni Segantini. The artist was famous all over Europe, with the exception of France, where they chose to ignore him. Since 1893, his painting
The Punishment of Lust
had been hanging in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

James had been impressed when he saw the painting. Except that he couldn’t forgive the title, for he definitely did not think that women should be punished for their lust. Most of Segantini’s paintings, however, featured simple peasant women or mothers holding children in their arms—much like Madonnas, James thought. Those he was less intrigued by, since he saw them as having little use in his life or in art. Yet the painting
Ave Maria Crossing the Lake
, which James viewed as yet another of Segantini’s Madonna pictures, had been awarded a gold medal at the world’s fair in Amsterdam. It was the foundation for Segantini’s international reputation.

Who was this man? James had heard the man’s childhood had been difficult. Supposedly, he had even been put into a reform school in Milan after the police picked him up off the streets several times. One thing James knew: he and Segantini didn’t have much in common, not only because of their views on women but also because the painter had left a large, exciting city like Milan and withdrawn to the Alps. These mountains which James found so incredibly dreary were obviously Segantini’s favorite subject.

Edward was delighted at the idea of meeting Segantini. True, he had recently been occupied primarily with garden architecture and plants, but his field was actually art history. He was interested in divisionism, a new direction being explored in Italian painting, and Segantini was definitely its most important exponent and practitioner. Edward was less concerned with how Segantini painted women than with the painter’s exciting modern techniques—methods of painting that Segantini had developed all on his own. He admired Segantini’s ability to catch the clear and almost painfully strong mountain light with his paintbrush. But he wasn’t surprised that James was less excited to meet the painter because of his attitude toward the opposite sex. James was always moved by women, even if they were just in paintings.

“Let’s first go and explore the village,” Edward suggested. “Have you already unpacked your photography equipment? The weather is marvelous. You could take a picture of the pensio
n . . .

“Absolutely not,” James replied.

Making Plans in Zurich to Go for a Health Cure

“Betsy? Why Betsy of all people?”

“Because I like her. Because I can talk to her. Because she understands me! Because we enjoy each other’s compan
y . . .

“That’s exactly why I’m against it. You’re ill, child, remember that. And you must get well again as quickly as possible, not ‘amuse’ yourself.”

“But I’ll get well again faster if I can have fun, Mama!” Mathilde looked at her mother defiantly.

“You went to the wrong boarding school. Or rather, you went around with the wrong sort of girls there. I told your father a thousand times that your girlfriends weren’t the right sort for you. But your father is interested only in his work.”

Emma Schobinger shook her head disapprovingly, but more at Mathilde’s inappropriate desires than at her husband’s indifference. In all honesty, Franz wasn’t the worst husband, and he acquiesced to her in most things. Every now and then, however, he felt he had to set an example and would insist on having his way in domestic matters as well. Those moments didn’t happen predictably, so one couldn’t prevent them, not even with the most careful planning. Sometimes it helped to point out that she had contributed a considerable sum of money to their marriage. But that argument came to weigh less with time, for—with his wife’s family’s startup help—Franz had become quite a successful building contractor and developer. And once men have their own money, Emma thought not for the first time, they become unpredictable.

“All right then,” she continued, handing Mathilde a brochure, “you’re going to the New Stahlbad Surpunt in St. Moritz, together with my cousin Frieda. That way the poor dear will get out a bit too. She can’t afford to go anywhere or do anything. Remember, Mathilde, marriage is a good thing, but being widowed is terrible. Sure, Frieda doesn’t have to work in a factory to earn a living like other widows, and because her children are big boys already, the authorities haven’t taken them away from her. But she doesn’t take anything for granted. Frieda will take her assignment seriously. Besides, Betsy is already having enough fun on her own.”

After this long lecture, she rang vigorously for the servant girl to keep Mathilde from having her say. But Mathilde threw herself into her mother’s arms. She had been educated at a girls’ secondary school in Lugano, with the primary purpose of learning to run her own household and staff in the near future; that is to say, right after her wedding.

“Not to Stahlbad! What an awful-sounding name! Never!” Her protest sounded both anguished and rebellious. And more softly but still with a firmness she probably inherited from her mother, she added, “and not with Aunt Frieda.”

Just then, the servant girl’s head appeared at the parlor door, “Madam, you rang?”

“Never mind, Irma, it’s all right. Not right now, in a whil
e . . .
Please close the door; we’re not finished here yet.”

The girl disappeared, and Emma Schobinger made another attempt. Mathilde was merely being obstinate, that’s all.

“Just take a look at the brochure,” she said. She took back the brochure she’d just pressed into Mathilde’s hand, turned it over, saying, “Look, here on the back it’s printed in French: ‘Grand Hôtel des Nouveaux Bains.’ Doesn’t that sound absolutely elegant? In addition, the hotel has mineral springs and is considered one of the most magnificent places in the town.”

“And why can’t I stay at the Hotel Victoria? It has more char
m . . .

“Because it doesn’t have its own therapeutic baths. And for the last time, you’re not going to St. Moritz for pleasure, but because of the springs. Because you’re anemic and are suffering from a nervous disorder.”

“If I have to go to the Stahlbad, then I’ll only go with Aunt Betsy.”

Mathilde was not as naïve as she seemed, Emma knew. She smoothed her rustling black taffeta skirt and tugged at her white cuffs; she knew that Mathilde would run to her father and pester him until he gave in. That had to be prevented. If that happened too often, it would weaken her own position in the family and with the servants.

“And what about poor Aunt Frieda?”

Mathilde sensed a sudden shift of opinion, and was instantly silent as a lamb. Her eyes really were very blue. She lowered her eyelids as her mother continued.

“First of all, your behavior toward me is not appropriate—after all, I’m your mother—and even less so toward Frieda. Do you think she’s just there to be pushed around all the time? What happened to her could happen to you one day too. But young people just don’t want to think about such things! That still doesn’t justify such behavior on your part.”

Mathilde sat there, gentle and peaceful. Her curly blonde hair was pinned up, but small ringlets escaped from the pins like tiny springs. They reminded Emma of her sister, Elizabeth. Betsy had looked exactly like that when she was nineteen, except that Betsy had dark hair and perhaps even bluer eyes than her niece. If Mathilde took after her—and it seemed that might be the case—then, as the girl’s mother Emma knew, she would have a lot to cope with.

“Mama, it’s really simple,” Mathilde said, with gentle emphasis. “First, you talk with Aunt Betsy and ask her if she’d like to accompany me. After all, she’s a widow, too, like Aunt Fried
a . . .

“But she has more money.”

“Yes. If she agrees, then you can tell Aunt Frieda that Aunt Betsy insists on going with me. Everyone in the family knows what Aunt Betsy’s like. Nobody can change that. There isn’t anybody who can stand up to her when there’s something she wants.”

“And Frieda?”

“You invite Frieda to join you when you come to St. Moritz. You’ll surely want to visit me sometime. When you do, you can come up for a couple of days with Aunt Frieda.”

Mathilde could tell from her mother’s sigh that she’d won. She looked at her mother—dressed in black as usual, even though her husband was in the best of health—and pressed a kiss on her small hand.

“Thank you, Mama!”

Emma glanced out the window at Lake Zurich and then back to the large pendulum clock in the parlor. At last she said, still sounding cross with her daughter, “It’s six o’clock. I certainly won’t tell your father about this. You can tell him yourself. You know how he feels—young girls with nervous disorders actually have other problems. He doesn’t understand the need for you to go for a cure anyway. Either with Frieda or without her.”

Mathilde was Betsy’s favorite niece. She herself had never been much of a family animal. She’d always tried to avoid the kind of interference that some of the older family members—even if sometimes with good intentions—often felt called upon to exert.

And Betsy knew that Mathilde liked her, perhaps just because they were so much alike. She would accompany her niece to the Engadine. However, she had no intention of staying at the Stahlbad. She preferred to stay in a place as far away from the usual St. Moritz bustle as possible. She didn’t have the slightest desire to stay among the ailing, hysterical, anemic, or barren people who went to the mineral springs to be “saved.” Emma, her older sister, refused to understand this, and so Betsy decided to discuss the question of lodgings with her brother-in-law Franz, who enjoyed life, loved his daughter, and in the end could always put his foot down.

For quite a while already Betsy had wanted to spend some time at the Spa Hotel Maloja, which was supposed to be quite sensational. So that was where she felt determined to go. After all, Mathilde wasn’t going to be confined to bed. And they would be only a half hour away by horse-drawn carriage from the healing mineral springs of St. Moritz. And while Mathilde was taking therapeutic baths, she could explore the surroundings. She was fit and loved the mountains, and there were guides who could take one safely to any of the various peaks. Betsy had a soft spot for strong men.

She had married young, at the age of twenty, and had experienced both good and bad times during her ten-year marriage. Several of her illusions had fallen by the wayside, but on the whole, she couldn’t complain. Walter, her husband, had died three years earlier of a heart attack, quite unexpectedly, for he was not overweight and there were no signs that he’d found life especially burdensome. And so suddenly, even before she turned thirty-two, she was a widow.

Her family hoped she would remarry. There was no shortage of candidates, for Betsy was young, attractive, and had money. Once remarried, everything would be back in order, and they wouldn’t have to worry about Betsy stepping out of line every now and then.

But Elizabeth Huber, “née Wohlwend,” as she liked to add because the name Huber sounded too ordinary to her, was busy exploiting the new role suddenly thrust upon her.

She had been married. Now she was a widow, and in her view, remaining one had some advantages. The freedom it gave her—especially because she was well off—was quite exhilarating.

Her sister Emma saw this desire for independence with some misgivings. The topic came up when Betsy came by the house to discuss possible plans for traveling to the mountains with Mathilde. “Oh, Betsy,” Emma said, “there are already enough lonely widows whom nobody wants anymor
e . . .

“. . .
and who,” Besty continued, “not only have no place in society but also have become miserably poor. These women have no protection whatsoever, yet they must try to bring up and feed their children by hiring themselves out as laundresses or factory workers. Provided, of course, their children aren’t taken away from them and put into orphanages or state homes by officials who say that mothers like them can’t take care of their children properly at home or bring them up to be good members of society.”

Betsy’s temper had a tendency to flare up, and Emma found it particularly uncomfortable when her sister, as she had recently been doing, voiced her social, even socialist, ideas.

But Betsy was not about to cede her point.

“Emmy, dear, being a widow has a very big advantage. I am the one in charge of handling my money. Walter and I had a decent marriage. He died young, and I mourned. But things are what they are. And this will probably surprise you—I am absolutely not going to marry again and give up control of my money. On the contrary! I will use my money to fight for the financial and social betterment of widows here in Zurich and in the rest of our country. They have the right to get insurance coverage and receive a widow’s and orphans’ pension. Because then their children won’t be taken from them after they’ve already lost their husbands and they are forced to take over his role totally unprepared. The role—would you believe it?—of breadwinner, caretaker, and head of the family.”

Betsy had talked herself into a passionate rage. Her eyes flashed at her poor sister, who, lips pressed together, sat with her hands meekly folded on top of her black skirt.

“And you know what? Nobody objects when—after the death of their husbands—these women who’ve been considered incapable of doing almost everything, not only raise their children and manage the household as they’re supposed to, but also run the farm, the vegetable store, the coal company, the carpentry shop, or the textile factory with its umpteen workers. Then, suddenly, they can do it, these women. And everybody considers it a matter of course. Yes, after all, who else is supposed to do it if the son is still too young to take over?”

Betsy, fired up by her own ideas and full of energy, rose from the sofa and stretched. She bent down to sniff the slightly dusty dried blossoms in the potpourri bowl on Emma’s coffee table, and concluded her monologue. “I’m going with Mathilde to St. Moritz, Emma. But your daughter is going to be exposed to somewhat different viewpoints in my company than she’s used to from her home and girls’ boarding school. I hope you’re aware of that.”

Oh yes, Emma was fully aware of it. That was why Frieda had been her first choice as Mathilde’s companion rather than her youngest sister. But it was too late now. Franz liked his vivacious sister-in-law and had already approved the plan.

So she simply said, “Yes, Betsy, I’m fully aware of it. I only hope you won’t inadvertently sow any anxiety in Mathilde’s mind. We don’t need that at this point in time, as you well know. Not at all.”

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