Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (6 page)

The feeling didn’t lift, however, and suddenly he was gripped by the memory of the loneliness that had so heavily weighed him down during his days at boarding school, especially during the first few years. He had become friends with Edward back then, probably because Edward had a German mother and spoke German. James’s real name was Jakob Scheffner, he was from Berlin, and owed the opportunity for his good British education to a distant uncle, Albert Danby. His parents didn’t have much money, and this much older relative of his mother’s who lived in England and was well off kindly took on the cost for the boy’s education. And so Jakob became James, and James eventually also adopted the name Danby, even though he inherited nothing else from his uncle.

Thus, for a moment, thinking of Segantini’s pictures, James again felt the loneliness he had felt when the other boys went home on weekends. When the halls and bedrooms of the boarding school emptied out, and the polished stairs no longer clattered with the lively sound of boys’ hurrying feet. Sometimes Edward was allowed to take James home with him, which solidified their friendship. But James Danby did not like being reminded of those days, which perhaps contributed to the feeling of unease that overcame him whenever he thought of Segantini and his pictures.

Happily, there were other distractions at hand. The first vacation and spa guests were gradually beginning to arrive, and James Danby had already seen several pretty women among them. Unlike his friend, he would try to spend this last week there as a hunter. He figured the tan he’d gotten from playing tennis was becoming, and he resolved to court the prettiest woman he could find at the St. Moritz mineral springs while Edward went in pursuit of spring flora.

He smiled at the thought, and selected an elegant suit instead of knickerbockers and tweed to stir up some interest on his day’s adventures.

“Madam?” James got up politely from the park bench and indicated his seat. “Such a beautiful day! You looked as if you might like to sit down for a momen
t . . .
May I offer you my seat on this bench?”

If he was at all concerned about embarrassing the lady, he was certainly in error. After turning around with a sort of bored disgruntlement, her expression sprang to life, and she reacted to his question as if she’d been waiting for exactly this kind of exchange.

“Is that all you have to offer? A seat on a bench that’s available to anyone?” she asked with a scornful smile even as she sat down and pulled back the veil on her hat.

James gazed into her willful blue eyes with delight. But she looked away, waving to a man in a dark suit, probably her husband, who was deep in conversation with another man.

“I’ll follow you right away, Robert darling, just go on ahead,” she said.

Then she turned back to James with a radiant smile, “Well, kind sir, what else do you have to offer me?”

James Danby didn’t easily lose his composure, but she was a real provocation.

“Well, I could invite you for an ice cream at some time of your choice,” he said, stroking his smooth-shaven chin.

“Oh no,” she said, laughing. “It’s still too cold for that. What else?”

He watched spellbound as she adjusted her vine-embroidered gloves, slowly pushing with the fingers of one hand between the fingers of the other. She spoke English with an American accent, and he wondered whether she had ever lowered her eyes in modesty.

When he didn’t answer her right away, she continued in a conciliatory tone, “Perhaps you’ll have a better idea tomorrow. I have to go now; my husband is waiting for me.” She lowered the small veil on her hat over her blue eyes and straightened the skirt of her white dress. Just as her husband turned and looked back at her to ask, “Kate, are you coming?” she gave a gesture that clearly indicated that she’d be at his side in a moment.

She didn’t say good-bye to James, but then, she hadn’t suggested that he speak to her in the first place.

Segantini laid the letter aside in annoyance; he was unable to make it out. A person named James Danby had written something to him that neither Bice nor anyone else in the family could make sense of because it was in English. Segantini himself spoke only Italian and rarely considered the fact a drawback because the people around here were all familiar with his native tongue. Of course they were. After all, the wine came from Valtellina, the polenta from northern Italy, the farmers were from the Bregaglia Valley, and people spoke Romansh, which was related to Italian anyway. Segantini decided not to answer the letter, to continue with his normal schedule. But for some inexplicable reason, he didn’t throw it away. Every time his eye fell on it, he felt a little pang. Finally, he had a sudden inspiration; grabbing the letter, he hurried over to the Hotel Maloja.

“How nice to see you, Signor Segantini,” Achille Robustelli said, getting up from behind his desk. “Please sit. What can I do for you?”

Segantini sat down awkwardly and handed Signor Robustelli the letter. “I’d be grateful to you if you could translate this for me. I don’t know English, and there might be something important in i
t . . .
you never know.”

Achille Robustelli nodded and scanned the piece of paper. “Good news,” he said. Someone wants to write an article about you for an English newspaper, and the gentleman asks for an appointment with you.”

Segantini frowned, “And do you think this is on the up-and-up, Achille? Is the man trustworthy?”

“Absolutely,” Robustelli replied. “It will be perfectly all right for you to agree to talk to him. Mr. Danby is a journalist; he would also like to take a few photographs. He is staying at the Pension Veraguth in St. Moritz.” He noticed Segantini’s hesitation, “If you like, I can send him an answer on your behalf.”

Segantini nodded but still seemed to have some doubts, and so Robustelli said, “I’m sure I can find an interpreter who would be suitable for the interview. It’s an opportunity you shouldn’t turn down.”

Segantini agreed, but did not stand up to leave, even after he had thought it over and told Robustelli just when such a meeting would be possible.

And so Robustelli said, “I think you’ll probably be interested in the concerts we’re planning for the summer season. You have been in previous years. I know how much you like music. But I can’t give you any details yet since the season has just begun, and the dates haven’t yet been set. However, I’ll keep you informed.”

Segantini still didn’t get up, but seemed to be getting ready to say something.

“Robustelli,” he began, then paused as if gathering his thoughts one more time. “There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. I heard that you’ve hired the young woman the Biancotti sons found on the mountain path that leads from Grevasalvas to Maloja. They say the girl doesn’t speak, and people in the village are saying all sorts of things about her. She’s living with the Biancottis, no one knows who she is, and everyone is making guesses about where she might come from.”

Robustelli waited politely, for it seemed that Segantini had not finished yet.

“Well, Robustelli, I saw her at the lake, and ever since I’ve been mulling over where I’d seen her before.” Segantini crossed his arms over his chest, then uncrossed them again as if he had just thought of the answer.

“She’s from Mulegns! From the other side of the Julier. Did you know that I lived in Savognin until 1894? We lived there from 1886 on, and Savognin isn’t far from Mulegns, only two post coach stops.”

He paused, but Robustelli just nodded; he still didn’t want to interrupt him.

“I saw her at one of the village celebrations in Mulegns, about three years ago, at any rate, it was shortly before we moved to Maloja in 1894. She was fifteen, maybe sixteen years old back then. I noticed her because of the unusual color of her eyes and her beautiful hair. But she was shy and just stood at the edge of the fairground. And no one invited her to dance. I asked the proprietor of the Lowen Inn about her, and he told me a strange story. The girl had been abandoned as a baby; it was his wife who had found the child. A woman who was traveling through had left the baby there when the coach made its midday stop at the inn.”

Segantini cleared his throat, and Robustelli pushed a glass of water across the table to him. He had heard that Segantini had been abandoned by his father as a boy and had, so it was said, never seen him again. The story of the girl had obviously moved the painter and brought back old, unhappy memories. Achille Robustelli cleared his throat in empathy, but still said nothing.

“The mother also left an envelope of money with the child, which they gave to the farmer who took the child in. After that, the child was treated the way they treat
, contract children; she was put into service. Even when they are very young, these children are treated as workers who have to toil as if they were adult servants or farmhands.”

Segantini took a sip of water; his voice revealed sympathy as well as some anger. “The proprietor of the inn just shrugged his shoulders. The girl, he said, doesn’t talk, which isn’t unusual since nobody listens to these creatures anyway. Worse, he said that such children—usually orphans, illegitimate children, or the offspring of impoverished families—are often forbidden to talk at all. Because frequently their quarters and care are worse than that of the farm animals, and the farmers don’t want them complaining to anyone.”

Segantini had gotten up meanwhile and was agitatedly pacing back and forth in Robustelli’s office.

Robustelli said, “Yes, the young woman works here. Andrina Biancotti asked me if we could use her at the hotel. And since she doesn’t speak, which is a certain disadvantage, I sent her to work in the laundry. There she uses her hands, not her mouth.”

“Well, I would like to look after her,” Segantini explained. “I know from the innkeeper in Mulegns that she can speak, and if she can speak, then perhaps she could do some better sort of work.”

Robustelli, beginning to feel a bit tense, started turning the ring on his little finger. And even though this suggested some act of magic, he was fully aware that he could not perform any magic and might even have to disappoint Segantini.

“What do you think should be done about the girl, Segantini?” he asked cautiously.

Segantini answered him with sudden fierceness, “I’ve become what I am because, after many years of tribulation, somebody finally believed in me and encouraged me. And here, in the case of this girl, I think I can help. Indeed, I feel that I have to help! You can lend me a hand. Give the girl a job in a place where I can see her. I want to get her to speak. And after that we’ll see.”

Robustelli suppressed a sigh.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” he said. “But I can’t promise you anything. First, let’s answer this photographer or journalist. I’ll explain the situation to him.”

Robustelli got up, a bit exhausted at the thought of all these tasks Segantini had put on his shoulders.

Segantini fixed him with a penetrating, hypnotizing look. “I believe in destiny, Robustelli, and that nothing happens without a higher power. Thank you. I knew that I could turn to you in confidence.”

Robustelli pondered the things they had discussed. Segantini was a famous man, and it was inadvisable to refuse his request outright. On the other hand, he didn’t even rightly remember who the young woman Segantini had been talking about really was. The hotel had 150 employees, and although he had at some time or other hired them all, he couldn’t remember the face that belonged to each name. But he did remember quite well that the lovely Andrina Biancotti had once asked him to hire a dumb but otherwise healthy girl to work in the hotel laundry because she had heard that they needed additional help there.

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