Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (5 page)

“And, Emma,” Betsy said, ending the discussion without reacting to Emma’s last remark or mentioning her plan to discuss the choice of a hotel with Franz, “I think, quite apart from all this, you could really dress more colorfully. I think Franz would really like that. After all, I’m the widow, not you.”

The Season Can Begin

The women ironing in the Spa Hotel Maloja’s overly warm laundry room looked up only briefly from their work when Nika was brought in. They were busy slamming heavy irons, filled with glowing charcoal, down onto wrinkled napkins and tablecloths with a dull bang. The orders were that Signor Battaglia’s culinary creations were to be served only on the most perfectly ironed, flowered white damask to delight the fussiest eyes and palates.

After the table linens could come the bed linens, which had been in storage over the winter and smelled of mildew and needed to be washed again—and ironed—before being used. In the first week of the season, 150 guests were expected; two or three weeks after that, all 400 guest beds would be occupied. So far, due to the enormous cost of heating the hotel, the Maloja had not been open for the winter season.

“She can hear but she doesn’t speak,” said the head housekeeper, Signora Capadrutt, as she pushed Nika toward a plump, older woman. “Giuseppina, can you show her what to do? She’s living with the Biancottis in the village. They call her ‘
la straniera
,’ because she’s an outsider and no one knows where she’s from. She can help with the ironing too, if you’re in urgent need there.” The head housekeeper pressed a large pinafore into Nika’s hands and hurried off.

Steam hung in the laundry, condensing on the high windows and the walls.

“Come,” Giuseppina said pleasantly. “Let’s see where you’re needed most.” Nika nodded and followed Giuseppina, who seemed to be in charge of the laundry staff and assigning people to jobs.

“The tablecloths and bed linens are handled separately, but thank God, they’re all white. That simplifies things. Look here, the laundry is first soaked in this tin-lined tub. The rule of thumb is for every hundred quarts of water, use one pound of soft soap, half a pound of soda, four to six tablespoons of ammonia, and four spoonfuls of turpentine. Then you put the dirty laundry into the tub. Lake water would be the best water to soak it in, but we use tap water because it’s simpler. The soaking water should be lukewarm, and the laundry stays in it ten to twelve hours. Mina,” she interrupted her lecture, waving to a young girl, “put the cover on the tub! Who forgot to do that again? If the cover’s not on, the laundry will get cold, and then you’ll have problems rinsing it out!”

She turned back to Nika. “It’s much nicer to handle the laundry if it hasn’t gotten completely cold in the soaking water, because after that it has to be rubbed on the washboard and wrung out. If some spots remain, soap them again. So now,” Giuseppina continued, leading the new girl onward, “here is the laundry stove, and on top of it are the steaming kettles. The white laundry is boiled here for at least one hour in a new soaking solution of brown soap and soda, but you know all that. Look over there. Giovanna, Ursina, and Selma are just about to take the boiled laundry out with wooden tongs. Then it’s rinsed, wrung out, and put back into the emptied soaking kettle. And over there is Maria,” she said, pointing to an older woman. “She’s the one who prepares the weak soap solution which is then poured over it. Maria, please use the borax sparingly. You don’t need to use that much of it!”

Giuseppina’s sharp eyes saw everything, and Nika swallowed nervously, wondering if she’d do the job right, even though she knew all about laundry days from working on the farm.

“And that’s it. After a few hours more of soaking, the laundry is rinsed in cold water, and then it goes into the bluing water to make it look whiter. Do you know how laundry bluing is prepared?”

Nika shook her head.

“Well, I always say the best thing for bluing is a good pulverized ultramarine. You put it into a little flannel bag, tie the bag closed, and draw it through the water until the water gets to the right color. And after the bluing, you wring out the laundry and hang it up to dry, right over there,” she pointed toward the place where the clotheslines were strung.

“And so, that’s all there is to it.” She saw Nika’s skeptical look and added kindly, “In a couple of days you’ll be as familiar with it all as I am. Oh, there’s one thing I forgot to tell you. The kitchen things are soaked in a special basin, with a stronger bleach solution. Before they’re boiled, they have to be well rinsed and soaped. And look here. We have a wringer machine. It squeezes out twice as much water as all of us can manage together by hand.” She smiled. “The laundry dries faster and it’s easier on the linens.” She laughed. “Just think how much we pull and tear at these linens when we wring them out by hand! My husband always says men have to be respectful of washerwomen’s arms, or they’ll be the losers.”

Nika gazed at her, taken aback.

“Don’t look at me like that, child. We don’t beat each other up at home. I’m much too tired for that in the evening. Even with strong arms, after eleven hours working, you’re bushed in the evening.”

Giuseppina looked around to find the best place for Nika to start.

“Still and all, an eleven-hour day is progress. After all, my Fausto wants me to have something left over for him too. Do you have a sweetheart?” But Giuseppina shook her head and put her hand up to her forehead. “What a stupid question! If you had one, you wouldn’t have left the place you came from. And you don’t answer questions anyway.”

It would feel good to work with Giuseppina. Nika knew that after only a few minutes.

Giuseppina signaled her to follow.

“By the way, Saturdays we work only nine hours. Did the head housekeeper tell you that? You have to watch the clock like a hawk, my Fausto always says.” Nika nodded repeatedly.

“Then come along, I think they could use you at the soaking tubs. Once the season is fully under way and the table and kitchen linens really pile up, I’ll explain how to remove wine, fruit, and fat stains. But for now just get started; you won’t remember everything, even if you’re very smart.”

As she was leaving the hotel that first day, Nika felt proud. She would be earning fifteen francs a month, she would keep five and give the Biancottis ten, as Andrina had suggested, and for that she could eat with the family.

Just as she was wearily turning into the street that led from the hotel to the village, a man came toward her. She was startled because he was walking directly toward her, as if he had been looking for her. But the next moment she recognized him. He was the one who had stuck his head out of the carriage that afternoon as she was looking at her reflection in the lake. The same dark, curly hair. Nika stepped aside to let him pass. The man was no longer young; he must have been close to forty. He had almost reached her when he slowed down. He wouldn’t just stop in front of her, she thought. But that’s exactly what he seemed to be doing. He was wearing a vest and a suit of coarse wool. His full black beard left only his lower lip visible. She dropped her eyes as his dark gaze fell on her. The man gave her a penetrating look as if he knew her and was trying to remember where he had seen her before. When she looked up again, he was still looking at her inquiringly. She was confused and looked aside. He was so different from the other men she knew. He carried himself with a kind of self-assurance she had never before seen. He wasn’t like the Mulegns farmers or the village people here in Maloja. He was from another world. He was a stranger, like her. The man nodded at her. It wasn’t until after he had passed her with a brief greeting that her heart started to pound.

In confusion, Nika patted down her unruly hair, tucking in a strand that had come loose from her bun, but nothing could soothe her bewilderment. The man’s dark eyes had made her dizzy; the pounding in her ears was almost enough to make her feel ill. She wasn’t used to having people look at her like that. In fact, she wasn’t used to having people look at her at all.

Contract children were nobodies. And she’d grown up as a contract child living with a foster family—the farmer’s family. Children like her didn’t even have names. They were referred to as “the boy” or “the girl,” no matter what their real name had been. People didn’t look at them—especially not in the penetrating way the dark-eyed man had looked at her. Contract children weren’t allowed to play with others, and except inside their yard, they weren’t allowed to speak with anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. They never became part of the village community where they lived. That’s what it had been like for her, growing up; that’s how it was for all of them. That was why she’d trained her heart from the time she was little to be as obedient as a dog on a chain.

And now her heart was pounding in a totally uncontrollable wild beat of its own. Someone had looked at her. Suddenly she felt she wasn’t just anyone or anything. She was a woman. And he was a man. And her heart told her that this man with the dark gaze had seen deep into her soul.

Nika forced herself to walk on and not look back. He was a stranger. Yet she suspected he knew loneliness, the terrors of the darkness, the kind of longing that nobody can assuage. Like her. With that thought, she did turn around to look. And at that same moment, he stopped to look at her again. They had recognized each other, in the blink of an eye.

Segantini continued walking but restlessness pursued him. It had taken him a moment, but he’d finally remembered where he’d seen that face with the unusual features before—the strange blue-green eyes, the strawberry blonde hair. She was the woman he’d seen on the dock bending over to look at herself in the lake when he’d been traveling back from St. Moritz and his visit with Oscar Bernhard.

For days, he’d been haunted by the way she’d held the long hair out of her face. He had drawn her in his head, again and again. She was so familiar he felt certain he recognized her from some earlier part of his life; but he couldn’t say to which period she belonged, or whether he’d seen her before in Milan or Brianza or during his days in Savognin.

She was beautiful, beautiful in a way different from Bice. He pushed these thoughts out of his mind and continued on his stroll. But whenever he reflected about his idea for the panorama painting, the thought of the girl gazing at her reflection in the water intruded. Slender and naked.

James Danby was bored to death. Without a big city and women, life was meaningless for him. He’d never developed a taste for the Alps, no matter how enthusiastically many of his fellow countrymen spoke about their sunrise mountain treks. He liked to sleep late and loved having a hearty breakfast with good old English Breakfast tea—the right blend which, naturally, they didn’t have here—while immersing himself in the Paris edition of the
New York Herald
, which arrived miserably late in St. Moritz. All this was enough to spoil his morning.

He couldn’t understand what had gotten into Edward to make him such an avid nature lover and collector of flowers. Weren’t men the hunters and women the gatherers?

He had agreed to spend one more week at Pension Veraguth, for Segantini hadn’t yet replied to the letter he had sent him. And he didn’t want to leave without a story. But once he got his story, a hundred horses wouldn’t be able to keep him from returning to London.

Still, he had to admit that the longer he thought about it, the more curious he was to meet with Segantini. The painter’s fame was quite phenomenal, especially considering that he didn’t make the rounds in the salons or artistic circles. He didn’t even have the advantage of being famous in his Italian homeland—there he wasn’t held in high esteem at all. Yet in other countries, people obviously saw something in him. His landscapes were especially admired, probably because they satisfied a longing for an ideal world, for harmony with nature even as mechanization was advancing throughout the world.

Yet one couldn’t help but see that Segantini’s paintings radiated a profound melancholy. The silence of his sunsets made one shiver with loneliness and isolation. The shepherdesses and farmhands in his pictures did not live idyllic lives; you sensed that their existence was hard and that, like their cattle and workhorses, they carried a yoke. James shook his head a little to let go such thoughts, which seemed to bring with them an invisible burden; such musings didn’t fit in with his current view of life.

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