Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (8 page)

“Oh.” Edward lowered his book.

“Yes. Because being an art historian you know Italian. Segantini speaks only Italian. Someone from the hotel had to write the letter in English for him. And besides, you wanted to meet Segantini too.”

Edward sat up and closed his book.

“I can read Italian pretty well, but I can’t speak it.”

“Oh, you’ll be able to manage. Don’t let me down. Besides, you’ve been neglecting me, Edward.”

Edward gave his friend an amused look. “I didn’t think we were married yet, Jamie. Actually, you care as little for my presence as most married couples who have been acquainted as long as we have. Habit. It’s all just habit, my man.”

They’d been friends since their days in school, and even though both of them were only around thirty, that was a long time.

“Nonsense,” James continued. “It’s like this. If you leave me alone too long, I get involved in difficult situations.”

“That’s news to me,” Edward said.

“You dragged me here even though you know that I’m not much interested in nature. So I’ve been looking around for beautiful women. Not without succes
s . . .

“I’m aware of that. Nice for you. And so where’s the problem?” Edward asked. A skirt-chaser like James could apparently never get enough.

“Well, the lady is marrie
d . . .

“But, you’re not bringing her here to share a room with me! And I still don’t know what you’re getting at,” Edward said.

“You’ll understand in a minute. I would like you to meet Kate. After all, you’re my friend. And that’s not all. There are two other ladies staying at the same place, this Spa Hotel Maloja where Segantini wants to meet. The other two ladies, so I am told, are an aunt and her niece.”

“Well, and so?”

“Don’t be so unimaginative.”

James pointed directly at Edward’s heart.

“The niece is very pretty. She has blue eyes, and she’s sh
y . . .
well, actually not shy, just youn
g . . .

Edward was on the verge of saying something, but held back.

“Anyway, they’re both blonde and blue-eyed. Kate is older, maybe twenty-five, and to put it bluntly, pretty shrewd. She monopolizes me as if I were her slave. We play tennis and golf and eat with her friends. She’s constantly provoking me, even in front of her husband, and—well, it’s quite titillating, and I think she isn’t prudish.”

James paused. “I think I’ll soon be at a point with he
r . . .

“And you need an official blessing that I’m supposed to give you,” said Edward, whose dealings with women were much more reserved.

“That, yes, in any case. No, it’s only that Kate keeps pushing me toward the younger one, and I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. It’s as if she wants me to keep proving to her that I prefer her, Kate, above anyone else. And I think she likes to play with fire. She can see that the young girl is falling in love with me. Yet the aunt sticks to her like a postage stamp.”

Edward sensed that he was supposed to perform additional blessings.

“But if you have just the slightest spark of decency, Kate is the only one you can have an affair with.”

“You know that I have no sense of decency,” James said.

Love and Desire

Segantini dressed with great care. He chose a white shirt, he combed his hair, he checked to see if his shoes were polished, something he often forgot to do. Then he stood at the mirror and looked deeply into his own eyes where the melancholy of his childhood could never be erased.

“I won’t need you today, Baba,” he said to the servant girl as he stepped into the kitchen. “I won’t be painting today.”

Bice was standing by the window with her back to him. He turned her around to face him. Her light eyes did not reveal what she was thinking, even less what she was feeling. Then he kissed her forehead. She asked no questions; briefly, gratefully, he stroked her cheek and left the house.

Signor Robustelli had kept his word. Segantini knew the Spa Hotel Maloja’s gardener. He had talked with him now and then when he walked past the hotel. Now he could see him from afar. The girl was with him, her reddish-blonde hair escaping from under the headscarf she had knotted at the back of her neck. She was nodding at the gardener’s words. He seemed to be explaining something to her.

Segantini reached the two, but the gardener unhurriedly finished his explanation. “The stone pines are also called Swiss pines. This is the time they bloom, now, in June and July. And as you can see stone pines like to grow near larche
s . . .

Nika showed no sign of the shock she felt when Segantini came up to them. She had learned his identity not long after their first memorable run-in on the street; this man with the black curls and dark eyes was the famous painter Segantini. She had run into him occasionally in the village.

Once, in the laundry, Giuseppina talked about him. “He is a gentleman. Different from us. He came up here from Savognin with his family. They say he had a pile of debts back there and wanted to get away from them and his creditors. He lives in the Chalet Kuoni. Baba, their housekeeper, brought them to the village here because she knew that the house was for rent. The signore comes to the hotel sometimes—he loves the music. He also loves his wife, Signora Bice, and he has four children with her. Baba follows after him like a dog, carrying his paint supplies. They say she reads to him while he paints.”

In spite of learning these details, Nika couldn’t get Segantini out of her mind. It was as if his gaze had buried itself so deep inside her that she couldn’t escape it. In the mornings she hoped to run into him; in the evenings, she feared such encounters. It was frightening to feel that another person could have this much sway over her thoughts and her innermost being.

She looked down at the ground. Putting her hands into the pockets of her gardener’s apron, she dug her fingernails into her palms to get a grip on herself.

“Good morning, Gaetano,” Segantini said to the gardener, “I see you’ve got help.” Then he looked at Nika and asked, “Do you like working outside better than in the laundry? I’m Giovanni Segantini, but I’m sure you already know that since we’ve seen each other before. I heard that you’d been working in the laundry and were living with the Biancottis. You’ve got a good teacher in Gaetano.”

So he was behind it. He was the one who had asked Signor Robustelli to take her out of the laundry, give her a different job. Nika raised her eyes and looked straight into his. She wasn’t going to try evading him. What was he thinking? That he could treat her like a little girl? She hadn’t run away from Mulegns just so that another man could order her around according to his whims, the way the farmer used to!

Not a good beginning, Segantini sensed. But Gaetano, who was in a good mood, engaged him in conversation.

“Will you be going to hunt eagles again this summer, Signor Segantini? I saw the photograph of you coming down the mountain with an eagle. You climb like a native; no one would think you’re from Milan.”

Segantini shook his head. “I’m not sure, Gaetano. Maybe. But I have too many ideas for projects in my head. Pictures that I want to paint in the next few months.” He sat down on a bench a few steps away and gestured for Nika to sit down next to him.

“I’d like to speak with the signorina for a moment, all right?” he said to Gaetano. “There’s something I want to talk to her about. She’ll rejoin you shortly. Just go on with your work.”

Nika sat down next to him. Her heart was jumping as irregularly as a goat let out to pasture. She inhaled his scent. So that’s what he smelled like. Woody. And like a fresh breeze. Different from other men she knew.

He was as shy as she was. It had been easy for him to court and win over Bice, and after that, it had never occurred to him to do it again. When he realized how little practice he had in such things, he laughed. He was amused at his own timidity.

“I’ve forgotten your name,” he said, “but I did know it. Someone told me a while back.”

Nika was silent and looked off into the distance. She had to concentrate hard to hear what he said.

“I recall,” he went on, “that when I asked about you, they told me that you don’t speak. Back then, you were fifteen, perhaps sixteen. You had the same eyes then and were already cocooned in your own world. It was the same for me long ago.”

Segantini watched her attentively. He saw her expression change now, become softer.

She felt confused. He said he knew her? That he’d seen her before? But she had never met any strangers. And if she really had seen his face before, how could she ever have been able to forget it? Impossible!

“Wouldn’t you like to ask me where I saw you?”

She looked aside, uncomfortable, but made no attempt to speak.

“I know you can speak,” Segantini said, as stubborn as she. “Or at least that you could, once. Some other time I’ll tell you where I know you from. But perhaps you’ll want to ask me yourself some day.”

He paused and frowned.

“I saw you a couple of days ago at the lake. You were leaning over the water and looking down into it at your reflection as if it were a mirror. You were holding the hair back from your face.” He imitated the gesture. “Like this.”

Nika nodded, smiling at him for the first time.

“I keep thinking about it,” he went on. “I can’t get the image or your gesture out of my mind. I’d like to paint this picture that’s in my head. You gave me the inspiration. Do you understand? You’re the model I see for it.”

Yes, she understood. He wanted to touch her with his eyes. She nodded. She wanted it too.

Segantini got up from the bench. A cloud had floated in front of the sun. It soaked up the light like a huge ball of cotton, and for a moment, the spot where they were sitting was immersed in semishadow. He stood up suddenly in front of Nika—an imposing figure in black, like the statue of a hero looking prophetically into the distance.

Segantini thought for a while. Finally he said, “Go back to Gaetano. Now I know where I can find you. I have to search for the right place for my picture. A spring, it has to be a spring over which you are bending.”

When he smiled again, she quickly put her hand on her chest as if to defend herself against his smile. He laughed when he saw the gesture, took the hand, and held it for a moment in both of his.

“Thank you for being willing to do this for me,” he said. The look in her eyes was really as unfathomable as he had seen it in his imagination. “I’ll come again soon. And please write your name on this piece of paper. Then you won’t have to say it aloud. But I’d like to know what it is.”

Nika continued to sit there, not moving. She felt as if what had just happened might dissolve into the nothingness of a dream if she dared to move the slightest bit. It was no coincidence that Segantini had come by. He had been looking for her. And he would come again.

“Well now, has the signore turned you into a pillar of stone? Does that explain why you’re still sitting here, glued to the spot?” Gaetano said pleasantly. “I have to admit it’s an honor that he came to look for you here, while the elegant ladies and gentlemen at the hotel are all hoping to meet him. That’s something to be proud of! But come now, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Nika loved working in the hotel gardens. When she noticed Andrina start keeping a notebook at the Biancottis, into which she wrote all sorts of numbers, Nika had indicated to Andrina that she would like to have a notebook too. And Andrina had actually bought her one, along with colored pencils. The girl had rounded off the price in her own favor, telling Nika that buying it had taken a lot of time. And anyway, Nika had no idea what paper supplies actually cost. Nika paid her with the first money she had ever had in her life. She regretted only that Gian wasn’t there. She would have loved to show him her treasures. But he had returned to Grevasalvas with the cows a few days before. He, more than anyone else, would understand how much a notebook and colored pencils meant to her. She planned to go back up to Grevasalvas with him the following Sunday after the church service. He came down to Maloja for the occasion each week, and he’d expressed a wish for her to go back up with him afterward. It would be a chance to draw. By then, she would have already drawn the first flowers and plants in her new notebook. The intensely blue gentian was already in bloom, and soon red alpine roses would be dotting the landscape.

But delighted as she was with the new notebook and the happiness she’d felt ever since Segantini had approached her, something bothered her. He’d asked for her name. But if she had tried to write it for him, it would have been a scribble. The postmistress had stopped the lessons too soon, had put the lesson book along with its instructions for a God-fearing life back into the musty dark of her drawer. Nika wanted to work on her penmanship. She would write his name a hundred times, and master her own; he must never be allowed to forget her name.

There was a school in Savognin, but in the winter it was too difficult for the children to get there, and in the summer they were all needed at home to work. Yet, a few had somehow learned to write, read, and do arithmetic. Of course, the contract children who were taken on to do farm- and housework had no spare time for lessons, even self-taught ones. The best Nika could expect was to have shoes in the winter like the farmer’s other children, even if the shoes she had were practically coming apart and had to be patched with cardboard because so many feet had already walked in them and outgrown them.

Nonetheless, Nika had often dreamed of going to school. There, she probably would have learned something about Italy. The Mulegns postmistress and innkeeper who’d told Nika the story of how she was abandoned swore up and down that the lady who’d left her as an infant on the front step of the inn had been speaking Italian with her female companion.

Working the hotel gardens gave Nika the chance to think back over the conversations she’d had with the postmistress. Now she remembered one in particular.

“Nika,” the woman had said one day when Nika had come for a secret visit. “Nika, I swear that the woman who left you was your mother. She was a beautiful lady, an elegant lady. I saw her, after all. She climbed out of the coach with her companion while the horses were being changed. She’d asked for hot soup in the restaurant like the other passengers. I tell you, she was a lady of the best social circles, and she was speaking Italian. I could hear it distinctly. She had dark, full hair and dark eyes, like Italian women have.”

Nika had listened with bated breath.

“And the woman with her looked like her servant, well dressed, but less elegant than your mother. She was older, and she was hunchbacked.”

“She was what?” Nika had interrupted her again.

“Well, she had a hump. But she wasn’t a cretin.”

“A what?” Nika had broken in again.

“Just let me finish. It was only a little hump. She wasn’t dim-witted and malformed, like cretins or idiots often are. But I did notice it.”

“You mean like Lorenz? Is he a cretin?”

“Yes, Lorenz is one. Poor Serafina. To have a son like that; nobody would have wished that on her. But did you want to hear about your mother, or didn’t you?”

The postmistress had set a glass of milk down for Nika; she poured herself some apple cider. The guest dining room was usually deserted around this hour. It was a while still before the next coach would stop, and the servants knew what they had to do. The postmistress always gave them clear instructions. A fly was buzzing around the table and then settled on her cider glass, crawling around the rim until it finally fell into the murky liquid.

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