Read Portrait of a Girl Online

Authors: Dörthe Binkert

Portrait of a Girl (9 page)

“If she
is
my mothe
r . . .
,” Nika had answered thoughtfully.

“Of course she’s your mother. After the mail coach drove on, there was this bundle left behind, and that was you. She just laid you down when no one was looking and got back on the coach. You were wrapped in a blanket; the locket and an envelope with money were lying next to the bundle. Quite a bit of money.” She said this with a certain degree of resentment, for such a dowry was a rare thing, and she herself would have bestowed somewhat more care on the foundling than Nika had received. “And on the piece of paper it said that your name was Nika. But nobody here knows whether you’ve been baptized.”

The postmistress had sighed. What a day that had been. As usual, she had been the one to deal with everything. One hundred forty people lived in the village, and sometimes there were as many as eighty to a hundred horses in the stables for the mail and passenger coach transport. That day, the coach had needed fresh horses to cross the Julier, and so she’d had to take charge of harnessing them up. Then there were all the other things that needed taking care of at the hotel, the restaurant, and the post stop station; managing the children, the stable hands, and servant girls was a whole other issue. Somebody had to keep track of it all, and her husband, for sure, wasn’t capable. But she, always pregnant, was supposed to be able to handle everything. There was a plan to construct a railroad over the Albula Pass to the Engadine. It would have taken some of the burden off the Julier Pass—off her. But until that actually happened, she’d have to cope with it all.

She sighed again. She could have used the money that came with the child, but the little one had still been an infant and had needed a wet nurs
e . . .
Nika nudged her to make her go on. The postmistress cleared her throat and gathered her thoughts:

“I would have kept you, but I had no milk left, I had just weaned my last child. And I didn’t want you to die from cow’s milk and gastroenteritis, and I had no time to try to feed you with goat’s milk. That’s why I went to the minister to discuss the matter. ‘Ursina,’ he said, ‘you know better than I do who in the village would be able to nurse a second infant. Those are women’s things. But show me the money; I’ll make a note how much it is so that there will be no question whatsoever about how much the foster family was actually paid.


The postmistress, first fishing out the dead fly, took a sip of her cider. Nika didn’t interrupt her this time.

“Well, then I thought of the farmer whom you know only too well by now. His second wife had just had a child. She still had plenty of milk because this was only her second child. The farmer’s first wife had died in childbirth with the ninth child. She didn’t have any strength left in her body—and no wonder.”

The stout woman sighed again and crossed her hands below her bosom, which despite all her drudgery wasn’t flabby, but round and expansive like a pillow filled to bursting with goose feathers.

Nika was still silent. She wanted to hear everything the postmistress had to say, didn’t want to interrupt the flow of words with a remark at the wrong moment.

“And so that’s where they took you, that same evening. By then you were crying pitifully with hunger. Such a little, abandoned creature. The farmer took the money, and Hanni, his wife, took you under her wing. Reto and you, you grew up together at her breast, and so the farmer now had twelve children. But in spite of the money, he always treated you like a contract child. Actually he didn’t treat the nine children from his first marriage any better or worse than the ones from his second marriage, and none of them were treated much better than you.”

Up to now, Nika had listened without moving. “So you’re certain the lady on the post coach was really my mother?” she asked.

“I’m absolutely convinced she was,” the postmistress replied.

“Then I’ll go and look for her,” Nika said resolutely.

The woman scratched her head. “Nonsense! That’s what comes from having told you. I shouldn’t have told you any part of the story. I only let myself be persuaded because you pestered me so. You won’t be able to find your mother. First of all, you’re too young, only twelve, and you have to stay with the farmer and work for him. And secondly, you’ll never find your mother.”

“And why not?” Nika asked angrily.

“Because you don’t even know her name, you don’t know where in Italy she lives, and you have no idea if she’s even still alive. Where do you intend to look for her? And with what money?” The woman shook her head at so much foolishness.

“There are things,” she went on, “you can’t change. You have to accept them. You’re a child without a mother or a father. That’s the way things stand. So it’s better if you don’t ask any more questions. Be glad that you didn’t die a miserable death. And now clear out.”

Nika looked sullenly at the floor.

“I’ll find her,” she said so calmly and with such conviction that the postmistress looked at her in surprise.

Signor Robustelli closed his office window. He rarely missed anything that happened in the hotel or its immediate surroundings. Segantini, it seemed, had not delayed in coming to meet with the strange young woman. He obviously couldn’t wait to see her again. Perhaps he’d stop by to see him in his offic
e . . .
Robustelli went over to his desk and arranged the correspondence into new little piles. Segantini might come to say thank you, he thought. But the day passed without the painter making another appearance at the hotel.

A Purposeful Picnic

Dr. Bernhard shook his head. His new patient, Miss Mathilde Schobinger, had shown him a report from her family doctor in Zurich, which didn’t quite coincide with his own diagnosis. He had no reason to mistrust his far-off colleague but had his own ideas nonetheless. The regimen he had prescribed for Miss Schobinger, who actually looked in blooming health, was not a very strenuous one—taking the therapeutic baths and drinking the mineral waters. This would give her time to enjoy the summer that was just starting. If she really had been suffering from exhaustion and anemia back in Zurich, then the famous healing waters of St. Moritz would do her good. Besides, he would be seeing her again, quite often.

“And please don’t try to restrain your appetite for vanity’s sake,” Dr. Bernhard said to Mathilde as he was leaving. “Breathing the pure air up here, and bathing in the mineral springs stimulates the appetite, and this is a good thing. It is an inherent part of the therapy. You won’t gain any weight in spite of that,” he said, smiling. “And best of all, your cure program should allow you sufficient time to have fun.”

Betsy used the afternoon in St. Moritz to buy some clothes suitable for the mountains from a dressmaker who had been recommended to her. The stay here was exactly the right moment to put aside her mourning. Walter would not have objected; he had never been narrow-minded. If he had been, he’d never have married her. At this point, she was sick and tired of the eternal black, even though she’d recently been brightening it up some by wearing a little white.

A bit of color was good for the soul after three years of drab outfits! She knew that many widows stayed in half mourning for the rest of their lives. She could already imagine how her sisters would reproach her when she returned home. But she had such a great longing for a change. A person deserves that now and then, she thought, and decided to get a velvety moss-green outfit and a dark, raspberry-red dress, nothing too showy. For the evenings, she chose an elegant silvery-gray dress of exquisite silk. She would wear her pearls with that. Wasn’t the eternal black actually intended to minimize the fact that widowhood also entailed some freedom? She didn’t have to put up with that.

She was advised to buy some high leggings in case she decided to go on mountain hikes. It made sense to protect her long skirt on the upward climb. There was an elastic strap below the hips that would allow her to tuck in the ends of her skirt. This gave her more freedom in walking. The dressmaker said she would deliver all the items she had chosen to the hotel.

Betsy felt happy as she lingered in the shop. Holding the dark-red fabric to her face, she looked at herself in the mirror. A trace of color was flattering. The chance to enjoy the fresh air, mountain climbing, and meeting new peopl
e . . .
all of it felt like life getting back to normal. Betsy left the store. The sunlight felt warm on the back of her neck. She squinted up at the sun, which was much more intense up here than on the plain below, and opened her parasol.

It’s spring, she thought. My God, it’s
spring
! How beautiful it is.

James Danby wasn’t sure he would have noticed Mathilde if Kate Simpson hadn’t pointed her out to him. But now he couldn’t get her out of his mind, in much the same way as he could not stop thinking of Kate. Kate had aroused in him the love of conquest. It was clever of her to fan the flames of his desire this way. For if he had fully accepted that she was, after all, a married woman who was only available for a superficial affair, the flame of desire inside him would perhaps have subsided by itself. But by confusing him, giving him hope, then pushing him in Mathilde’s direction, only to remind him that her erotic experience trumped anything the young girl might offer, she had captured his imagination more strongly than she could have without this confusing, ambiguous game.

As for Mathilde, she was falling in love with him, that much was obvious. With each meeting that Kate orchestrated, her happy bewilderment grew and her defenses diminished. The young girl’s face was an open book, and James felt flattered to find himself on every page. Yet it was Kate who was in charge of the game. It annoyed him, but also spurred on his desire for conquest. The tortures she arranged for him were sweet and risqué enough to keep his interest in her alive.

He’d allowed Kate to persuade him to come along on a hike from St. Moritz to Pontresina. The party, in addition to a few friends of Kate’s, would also include Mathilde and her aunt. Not a strenuous expedition. The plan was to picnic at Lake Staz. The Simpsons’ servants were sent ahead with checkered tablecloths, folding chairs, picnic baskets, and an assignment to find a suitable spot. Afterward, they planned to have tea in Pontresina at the Kronenhof and then return by horse and carriage.

James described the excursion to his friend in the most attractive terms, and then he added, “Eddie, I need you. You’ll come along, yes? Please, as a favo
r . . .

Edward could sense that he had been chosen to play a special role that afternoon. “It’s nice that you need me, Jamie. But what’s my assignment?”

He wasn’t enthusiastic about going for a walk in the surroundings with other people. They’d all be talking incessantly, probably about themselves, exchanging a lot of vain and stupid remarks, paying no heed to nature. In the end, they’d hardly know what landscape they’d walked through.

“I’m sure you’ll like the route we’re taking,” James cajoled. “The birds there fly right into your hand if you hold out some food for them. And you like birds, after al
l . . .
” Edward tried to hurry his friend’s recital with an impatient gesture of his hand. “And it would simply be wonderful if you could spend time with Mathilde’s aunt, you know,” he continued.

“So that’s it—I’m supposed to clear the path for you by keeping Mathilde’s chaperone at a distance.”

“Exactly,” James said, relieved that his friend had understood what it was all about.

“And you want to shoot your prey right in front of the wicked Kate’s eyes and lay the trophy at her feet.”

“She won’t keep playing the cat in this cat-and-mouse game,” James said, contradicting him. “She’ll die of envy when she realizes that the lovely Mathilde is surrendering while you’re distracting her aunt, and she’ll agree to meet me by herself! I’ll have her with me tonight, I swear!”

“Which one?” Edward asked.

“Well, Kate, of course!” James cried, surprised at his friend’s obtuseness.

Edward was silent. Then he said, “And if I won’t do it?”

James wasn’t surprised. He had expected him to balk. Edward was simply too staid.

“Then you’ll deprive yourself and Madame Betsy Huber, née Wohlwend, of a lovely afternoon. You could converse in German and finally have a chance to show off your language facility. Besides, she’s quite attractive. Remember, I pointed out the two of them to you at the dairy farm recently. You have to admit that the lady, if she didn’t have to take care of her niece, would be getting a lot of attention and sympathy. She’s exceptionally good-looking, I think. She’s elegant and has—well—I think she’s a woman with spirit.”

Edward hated hearing James talk about women as if they were horses.

“What you’d like to say is that you really like her quite a lot, except unfortunately you’re too busy to acquire her as well?”

James laughed. He’d won the round. Edward wasn’t thrilled about it, but he’d come along. Otherwise, he would have turned mute, the way he sometimes did when he really had determined not to do something.

“Maybe she’ll come to occupy a special place in your affections. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her company, Eddie. But now get a move on. We’re meeting in an hour at the Waldhaus Restaurant by the lake. The excursion starts from there. Just think, today you may find happiness.”

Some find happiness and others lose it, thought Edward, but didn’t say it aloud, because the sentiment wasn’t quite apt—only something you already have can be taken away from you. No recognizable happiness had come Edward’s way in a long time. And he’d forgotten how to be that kind of happy person who reached out for joy with determination. Of course he’d forgotten! Emily had been his great love. Yet his unhappiness didn’t even have the tragic dimension that might, in the end, have permitted him to draw some satisfying sense of melodrama from his dismal fate. Love had simply been distributed unevenly. Emily had loved him less than he had loved her, with the result that one day she had dissolved their engagement and married another man with whom—as far as he knew—she was actually happy.

No, his story wasn’t exceptional, but it was enough to make him rather hesitant to approach women. However, instead of worrying about the situation, he found new interests. His father, a wealthy businessman, was certain that his oldest son, Anthony, would follow in his footsteps and succeed at the family business of manufacturing bathtubs and bathroom appliances; this was especially true since more and more private households and hotels were being equipped with them. With this in mind, he had allowed his younger son, Edward, considerable freedom in choosing a career. And since the father had always dreamed of having some intellectual professionals in the family, thereby increasing its social position, Edward had studied history and art history. Soon afterward, he had gotten an extraordinarily well-paid and pleasant position with an art institute in London that left him a great deal of freedom.

At first, after Emily left him—without really giving him any solid reasons—he went for a while to Paris and Rome, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t regain his inner peace. And so he returned to London and withdrew to the small manor house and lands in the southwest of England that his father had bought from an impoverished lord. As the artistic member of the family, he had been assigned to plan the much-needed renovation of the estate. In the process, he had discovered his love for garden architecture and the innocent beauty of plants. He designed and planted new gardens, became absorbed in botany, and was proud of his experimental garden in which he tested plants from distant regions to see which ones might also take root and thrive in English soil. He found a happiness in this new activity which differed from the happiness he’d had with Emily.

He realized that he would have preferred to become a biologist—a scientist—even though he loved the arts and excelled in his knowledge of music. His real purpose in coming to the Engadine was to study the Alpine flora and take back plants to England, even though his friend James shook his head over this passionate involvement with botany. James didn’t mind old men finding joy in their gardens. After all, the ancient Romans had suggested that it was one way of finding happiness. But Edward was still young, as James kept pointing out to him, even younger than he was, and he needed a woman.

“Don’t tell me you don’t have any fantasies!” he would often say. “That’s impossible. I don’t care if they’re unusual, but you must have some. Absolutely. And you probably have some very bad ones. After all, people wan
t . . .
” James didn’t know how vulgar he could be in Edward’s presence, and so he didn’t finish the sentence.

Edward was disgruntled. Why was it so easy for James to have a good time? Why was he able to enjoy himself without any feelings of guilt, certain in the belief that he could make any woman happy without ever asking himself if it was really so? Why did he, Edward, so rarely come across a woman he really liked, while Jamie found something in every woman he ever met—enough at any rate—to make her desirable?

Deep down he was envious of his friend—he couldn’t deny it—a little bit anyway. And it was only because he didn’t want to admit it that he was allowing James to use him to play an obsequious Leporello to his own Don Juan.

Glumly, he put on his shoes, as always meticulously tying a double knot—because that was the kind of person he was.

“Mr. Holbroke, how nice of you to join us,” Kate said, smiling radiantly at him. “James keeps you away from us too much; keeping a jealous guard on you, always making excuses, saying you had other plans. One might think he was afraid his best friend might compete with him. Otherwise, I would have to assume that you’ve been avoiding me, and that would make me sad. In any case, you look in fine shape today. Don’t you agree, James?” She turned to James, but he was already greeting Mathilde and Betsy. Just then, he called over to Edward, who left Kate with an apologetic smile, and thus avoided having to answer her.

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