Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (7 page)

And then Andrina had actually brought the young woman to see him, and he had immediately hired her. But his eyes at the time were fixed on Andrina; she was such a pretty thing, firm and fresh as a chestnut bursting out of its shiny shell. Brown hair, dark lively eyes, and full lips. And he felt she was looking at him in a certain way, too, even though he was quite a bit older than she was.

Robustelli took a silver cigarette case from the top drawer of his massive desk and opened it. He didn’t take out a cigarette but rather looked at himself briefly in the reflective interior of the cover, passing a hand over his dark hair, which, unlike Segantini’s, was simply combed back.

On the whole, he thought, compared with Segantini, he was rather unimpressive. The fact that his mother thought he was very good-looking left him rather skeptical. All right, he had nice brown eyes, but not Segantini’s penetrating, mesmerizing gaze. And although he agreed with his mother’s proud appraisal to the extent that he did admit to having a masculine, well-proportioned, even Roman profile and a pleasant brownish skin tone, the gray at his temples made him look older than his thirty-one years.

But why compare himself with the painter? He had an important position and was doing well financially. More and more frequently, he thought the time had come to start a family. Up to now, the right woman just hadn’t crossed his path, or perhaps he just hadn’t taken the time to look around closely. And yet he thoroughly enjoyed life and was enthusiastic about railroads and playing bridge as well as dancing, something quite rare for a man. In fact, he could take some pride in the fact that there were quite a few women who raved about his abilities as a dancer.

Once a week he played bridge with friends in St. Moritz, a sacrosanct date, and whenever he could, he sought opportunities to go dancing. He loved the polka, and at that very moment, envisioned himself zipping diagonally across the dancehall floor with a flushed Andrina, her skirts gathered up.

With that last image in mind, he closed the cigarette case engraved with the initials A and R, and put it carefully back in the drawer. Then he had someone fetch from the laundry the girl who didn’t talk.

“Wel
l . . .
” Robustelli said, drawing out the word and then pausing. He wasn’t quite sure how to address a person who didn’t speak and from whom he couldn’t expect to get an answer. He started with a silly question—and was instantly ashamed. “What is your name?” he said, but then added, “Excuse me, I know you don’t tal
k . . .

Looking at Nika standing before him, calmly waiting, he tried to imagine what about her fascinated Segantini so much. It couldn’t be just her sad story that made Segantini want to help her at any cost. There were contract children all over Switzerland whose situation was presumably no less awful than hers.

Very well, thought Robustelli, who wanted to be fair to the painter and not jump to any conclusions. Segantini had noticed her before he did. And perhaps understandably, considering that both had been abandoned by their parents. Achille’s own life was perhaps too protected for him to be able to imagine the wounds that such a situation might leave on a young soul. And stil
l . . .
Anyway, he liked Andrina better. The new girl was too thin for him. Although she did have remarkable eyes; that was true. He couldn’t see her hair—which Segantini had singled out—because it was concealed under the cap that all the in-house laundresses wore.

Robustelli gazed at Nika thoughtfully. Where could he put a girl who didn’t talk?

He reached for the newspaper on his desk and held it under Nika’s nose. “Can you read what it says here?” he asked.

Nika squinted slightly, seeming to think hard. But whatever the result, she just shook her head. This was quite a task Segantini had taken on. If she worked as a helper in the kitchen, he wouldn’t see her any more often than in the laundry, and without any education and silent as a fish, she was unsuited for dealing with the hotel guests.

Nika was still standing there, waiting. And it dawned on Robustelli that she had no idea what this was all about.

“Someone has approached me on your behalf and asked that you be assigned a different job in the hotel,” he said pleasantly, “and I’m trying to figure out what sort of work you would be suited for.”

Nika was at first surprised, then she smiled, and her smile made Robustelli change his mind about he
r . . .
for it was enchanting, both shy and radiant. It was as if the sun had suddenly come out from behind the clouds, shedding light and creating gentle, colorful shadows where before everything had been gray.

An inspiration came to him: she could work outside! Gaetano, the gardener, could use a helper, and at the same time, he could train her. After all, the old man wouldn’t be able to go on forever. And then the painter could see the girl whenever he wished.

“Well,” he said with satisfaction, “I think we’ve found a solution. Go tell Giuseppina that we need you elsewhere and that she should talk with the head housekeeper about finding a new laundress. No, never mind; I’ll talk to her. Tomorrow, early in the morning, go immediately to see Gaetano, the gardener. I’ll speak to him today, as well as the head housekeeper. You’re in good health and can do garden work, can’t you?”

Again Nika’s face was lit by a brief smile before the radiance once more went into hiding. He couldn’t possibly know how much she loved nature. She observed animals and plants so closely that she could draw them from memory, that is, if she could find a scrap of paper and some time before going to sleep.

Nika looked at Achille Robustelli as if he were a saint sent from heaven or a hero who had just dismounted from his horse and who, after proposing this elegant solution, would be spurred on instantly to put the next plan into action.

“All right, you may go now,” he said, turning his ring again as if he really could occasionally perform magic with it.

“Two things, Andrina. The girl you brought to work in the laundry—I need her for another job. She’ll be helping Gaetano, our gardener. Second—” He saw how she stood there, pursing her full lips, in expectation, and he enjoyed the moment. “Second, I spoke with the head housekeeper. She praised your work. Even though you’re still young and don’t yet have a lot of experience”—he thought a moment—“you apparently handle things skillfully and deal with the guests courteously. Signora Capadrutt thinks you’re ambitious enough to work your way up in the hotel. This takes time, of course; and Signora Capadrutt is a strict supervisor. But you’ll probably be pleased to hear that we’re aware of your contribution, and I intend to promote you if you keep it up. When we reassign rooms next season, you have a good prospect of getting a single. As well as a job with more responsibilities.” He looked up at Andrina, “That is, as I said, if you keep working hard.”

Andrina opened her cherry red lips and said, more softly than was her wont, “Thank you, Signor Robustelli. That’s very kind of you. I won’t disappoint you.”

Games and Game Rules

James Danby was an excellent tennis player. And if he was right about the intrepid lady he had met in the park, a brisk exchange of balls with those in her own social set would intrigue her more than exploring the unique features of the local landscape. Besides, her husband seemed to be quite a bit older and there was the hope that he would be occupied with handling business affairs by phone or telegraph while his wife filled her day playing golf or tennis with the other guests.

He was in luck. She had signed up for a lesson and was flirting with the tennis pro, but she discovered James sooner than he had expected. He felt flattered when she interrupted her game and, cupping her hands around her mouth, called over to him: “In ten minutes I can try out what I’ve just learned on you! But a lemonade before we match our skills would be marvelous!”

He got the hint. Spurred on by the prospect of beating her in a few rounds, he came back just minutes later with a large glass of lemonade.

She took the cool, frosted glass, sipped at the lemonade, and said, beaming, “Thanks! You’ve saved me from dying of thirst! Though an orangeade might have been even nicer.” Before he had the chance to think about what he’d done wrong, she gaily took his arm and said, “Come on. I’d like to beat you. Right this moment. The tennis instructor was quite pleased with me.”

The game was brief. James was more athletic than he looked. He couldn’t tell from his partner’s eyes whether his speed and intelligent game had impressed her. The lady—he’d learned her name was Kate Simpson—wiped her brow.

“You’re no gentleman, sir. Didn’t you know that a gentleman always lets the lady win? And in such a way that no one can tell?”

But she was already laughing gaily, and James only nodded as she went on, “I’m hungry as a bear. Won’t you come with me to the restaurant? I have a date with my husband and a couple of friends for lunch, and I’d like to introduce you to them. A good-looking man isn’t such a bad troph
y . . .

She took his arm and pulled him toward the changing rooms.

“I’ll see you in ten minutes in front of the entrance, all right?” She cast him a look with her blue eyes that was like blowing a kiss, and she was gone.

She’s quick and witty—not at all bad company, James thought. And she was exactly what he needed to make St. Moritz bearable, even if she was a bit spoiled. But spoiled in an amusing way. And she was pretty.

He looked at his pocket watch. Where was she? He’d already been cooling his heels there twenty minutes; the noonday sun was burning hot, and sweat was collecting under the rim of his straw hat. He couldn’t go into the ladies’ dressing rooms, and it would have been rude just to leave.

She came out just as he had finally had enough and was turning to go.

“It’s not nice to sneak away like that,” Mrs. Simpson called out in a good-humored way.

This time James couldn’t suppress a trace of annoyance, “I’ve been waiting for you for quite a while already.”

“Oh, I was looking for something; it’s all right now. Let’s go. But we have a short ride there first.” She took his arm and dragged him along. “My husband and I are staying at the Hotel Maloja, and the others are waiting for me there. We’ll take a carriage and be there in half an hour. Come on!”

James was no longer quite certain that he wanted to have lunch with her. But it was too late to back out.

“Are you in love with him?” Betsy asked her niece and fanned herself with the telegram the waiter had just brought to their table. Mathilde made a grab for it, but her aunt held on to the envelope. “First, answer my question, are you in love wit
h . . .

“Adrian?” Mathilde finished the question.

“Yes, with Adrian,” Betsy nodded. “In any case, he wrote to you even before we arrived her
e . . .
and now thi
s . . .
” she handed Mathilde the telegram, “even though, you called home to tell them, but you completely forgot to tell your fiancé.”

Sometimes Betsy really is impossible, Mathilde thought. Mama, who hated indiscretions when she wasn’t committing one herself, was right about that. Why did her aunt have to be so observant! Under her aunt’s gaze Mathilde felt herself blushing as if she’d been caught doing something forbidden.

“It’s all right, Tilda,” Betsy said with a smile. “I was just kidding!”

Betsy really liked the Hotel Maloja. It had a reputation for measuring up to the best hotels in the world, and it more than lived up to that. It hadn’t been all that difficult to convince Franz that, since his daughter had to go for a cure, it made sense to make her stay as pleasant as possible. He cared a lot more about luxury than his wife and would have made a similar choice for himself.

Betsy’s eyes swept the sparsely occupied dining room. She was happy here. The room was elegant and airy; the stucco ceiling and white columns gave it a Mediterranean feel, almost as if she had landed on the Côte d’Azur. And indeed, sunlight was streaming through the windows; it was a glorious day.

A small, cheerful group of English and American guests were sitting around a table nearby. A slender young man with blond hair caught her attention. He stood out because he was clean-shaven and thus seemed younger than the other men, who had respectable beards. He had just turned to the lady on his right, a petite, pretty blonde who was animatedly whispering something that caused him to look in Betsy and Mathilde’s direction. Catching his glance, Mathilde lowered her eyes.

Betsy noticed it. “He’s quite good-looking,” she said, all the while calmly looking him up and down. She was aware of the effect she had on people, and in spite of being in semi-mourning, always dressed with a certain flamboyance. She loved large hats and fine fabrics, and slender as she was, it was not particularly difficult to display her small waist. Still, it wasn’t only her wasp waist that attracted the attention of men. There were also her intensely blue eyes, which contrasted so dramatically with her dark hair.

Betsy had always taken this attention for granted. She herself was the youngest in her family, almost an afterthought, and she had been treated as the family pet much like her niece had been. Aside from her widowhood, she had been largely protected from trouble. Where she and Mathilde differed was in age and experience. Her niece had the advantage of the soft bloom of youth and a somewhat more affectionate nature. Her eyes, in a face framed by blonde curls, were open and inquisitive rather than shrewd and worldly. But Betsy smiled; it would be a mistake to underestimate her niece, she thought. Mathilde knew exactly what she wanted. And it was one of the reasons Betsy liked her so much.

Kate was the one to draw James’s attention to the two women, after she had introduced her new conquest to her circle of friends.

“My dear James,” she said, “let me explain something. I would rather you look around at the other tables than here among my friends. You see I’m already keeping a jealous eye on you.” She briefly laid her hand on his arm. “Even though I have no right to you.” She smiled at her husband sitting at the other end of the table, who had just directed a searching look toward James, and tilted her head toward the table where Betsy and Mathilde were sitting. “Have you noticed the two ladies over there? They arrived last night. I wonder whether they’re sisters. The older one is a little too young to be the mother of the other, yet I wouldn’t describe her as untouched by life.” She examined the two women thoroughly and concluded that the older one might prove to be her equal if not superior in appeal, and for that reason she said, “She is trying a little bit too hard to compensate for a lack of youth by her extravagance.” And smiling broadly at James she went on, “It isn’t easy to admit to yourself that after a while, to go on pleasing men, you need a great many other qualities to compete against youth.”

As she had expected, James picked up on that.

“What are you talking about, Kate! You know full well how pretty and young you are!” He took her hand in his as if to kiss it. “Don’t act so modest. Because you’re not, and you know it.”

But Kate lifted her chin indicating the other table and said, “No really. I feel old next to an enchanting young girl like that one over there. Doesn’t she have everything to warm your unattached heart: loveliness, youth, energy, and sufficient inexperience for you to shine as a seducer?”

James sighed. “What can I say? Didn’t I wait patiently for you after our tennis game and follow you like a puppy to this place? Am I not exposing myself to your husband’s suspicious looks, just to be with you, at this very moment? What else would you like me to say, beautiful Kate?” While he was speaking, he looked over as she had ordered him to at the two ladies and thought it charming the way the younger one lowered her eyes as he looked at her. Of course, she was well brought up, but it wasn’t just good manners that made her avoid his eyes. She liked him, of that there was no doubt.

Kate, who had been watching James, asked, “What else would I like to hear? Well, naturally, that you find me irresistible, and that you’ll think of me tonight.”

James smiled. “I’d certainly be doing that if I didn’t know that by then you’ll be lying next to another man.”

“Oh, then have some flowers sent,” she said, without hesitation. “Their fragrance will make me think of you whether I want to or not! We’ll be together in a most innocent way.”

He flushed hearing these words because he couldn’t imagine anything innocent in connection with her.

“Will you promise to think only of me tonight?” Kate’s voice was insistent. “And not of the pretty girl over there? Look, you really have confused her.”

He laughed and nodded obediently. Kate got up, and while James was saying good-bye to her friends, he managed to look unobtrusively at the other table, and received a furtive glance in return.

Dear Mr. Danby,
Signor Giovanni Segantini has asked me to reply to your kind letter of June 12, 1896. He is prepared to meet with you to discuss his work. If the date is convenient for you, the meeting can take place on June 20th at 4 o’clock in the Spa Hotel Maloja. Signor Segantini speaks only Italian. If you need an interpreter, please let me know. I’m sure that I can be of assistance in that case. I would appreciate your confirming the appointment.
With best regards,
in the name of Sig. Giovanni Segantini
Yours faithfully,
Achille Robustelli
Assistant Director, Spa Hotel Maloja

James Danby examined the letter from all angles and then went to find his friend.

“Eddie, things are getting serious. But not now, not till an eternity from now, not until June twentieth. Didn’t I plan to be back in London long before then?”

Even though it was only a rhetorical question, Edward, lying on his bed reading, mumbled, “I thought you had met an interesting woman and were staying for an indefinite time.”

“Whatever,” James said, dropping into the flowered easy chair. “Segantini wants to meet with me June twentieth. At the Spa Hotel Maloja. The same place the lady I’ve been seeing recently is staying. And you’re coming along.”

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