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Authors: Eva Ibbotson

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BOOK: Madensky Square
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By the time I had comforted the Professor and invited him to supper the following week, the grim Frau Hinkler, with Rip at her heels, had disappeared into the apartment house and shut the door.

My closest friend in Vienna is Alice Springer. She’s three years older than I am, gentle and funny, and though she talks almost without stopping she never seems to say anything wounding or indiscreet. Alice sings in the chorus of the Volksoper – a hard life of dirndls and um-pa-pa – and I regard this as a shocking waste because she has a real gift for millinery. Hats come to Alice like dresses come to me and she has total recall for any hat that has ever caught her interest.

She’s not a person to complain, but I think of late things have been hard for her. Though she’s so pretty – one of those nut-brown women whose eyes and hair have the same russet tint, she’s nearly forty and recently there’s been a tendency to put her in the second row, often with a hay bale or a milking stool. And from there, as everyone knows, it’s only a short step to the back row in a grey wig with the village elders and a spinning wheel.

I usually pick her up at the theatre and we go and have a spritzer at the Cafe Landtmann. Tonight I was early enough to use the ticket she’d left for me, and so I was privileged to see the whole of a new production from Germany called

Student Love
. Alice was in the second row again, holding huge steins of beer aloft because it all took place in Heidelberg and about the operetta itself I prefer not to speak.

At the same time people were enjoying it. I noticed particularly a very fat man in the same row as me. He had bright ginger hair parted in the middle and a round red face which clashed with his moustache and it was clear that he was very much moved by what was going on. During the song about the fast-flowing River Neckar he sighed deeply, during the duet in which the nobly born student and the impoverished landlady’s daughter plighted their troth, he leaned forward with parted lips, and during the heroine’s solo of (strictly temporary) renunciation he was so overcome he had to mop his face several times with a large white handkerchief.

When it was over I went backstage to fetch Alice, who was just lowering what looked like the mossy nest of a Parisian chaffinch on to her curls.

‘Oh Alice, what a marvellous hat!’ I said when I’d embraced her.

‘Yes, it’s good isn’t it? I got it at Yvonne’s. But listen; there were three straws in her window, all with identical brims: big ones. One trimmed with roses, one with mimosa and one with cherries. Imagine it, Sanna,
exactly the same brims in every case
!’

I too was shocked. How can anyone think that roses, mimosa and cherries can all be treated in the same way? For roses the brim must be wider, softer; mimosa (about which I’m doubtful anyway – one so easily feels one is in the presence of a hatchery for miniature chickens) needs to be wired on with a lot of greenery, and cherries really only work on a boater. You have to be quite rakish and impertinent when wearing fruit.

It was a beautiful evening; the scent of narcissi came to us from the Volksgarten and the waiter, who knew us, found us a quiet table, for together Alice and I are inclined to unsettle unattended gentlemen. As Alice poured our wine and mineral water she chatted cheerfully enough, but I know her very well and I thought she was worried.

‘How is Rudi?’ I asked – and I was right, the trouble was there.

‘He’s so
exhausted
, Sanna. So tired and grey – and he just works and works. And that wretched wife of his doesn’t even feed him properly! I have to cook goulash for him when he comes and that isn’t fair. It’s wives who should cook goulash; not mistresses – we have so little time.’

‘She’s become a vegetarian, I hear?’

‘Yes, but not the kind that eats proper vegetables – just the kind that has gherkin sandwiches sent to her room while she prepares talks on Goethe’s Nature Lyrics. And there’s a court case coming up, did you know? The university is suing her: she broke in at night and let out hordes of rats and mice. You can imagine how Rudi feels – one of the most respected solicitors in Vienna having to beg a colleague to defend his wife.’

‘So it was her? I did wonder. Poor Professor Starsky lost all his terrapins.’

‘If you knew what a saint Rudi was, Sanna. If anything happens to him…’ She blew her nose.

As a matter of fact I did know what a saint Rudi Sultzer was. I’ve never been surprised that this balding, bandy-legged solicitor has for so many years held Alice’s heart. Rudi Sultzer is an Atlas who supports uncomplainingly an enormous, dark and over-staffed flat in the Garnison Gasse, a villa in St Polten to which he never has time to go, and a wife and grown-up daughter who despise him because he reads cowboy stories and likes to play cards.

‘I expect I’m being silly,’ said Alice. ‘Rudi’s only forty-five – he’s absolutely in his prime.’ She shook off her fears. ‘Now listen, Sanna, when you were out front tonight did you see a very fat man with ginger hair sitting in the same row as you?’

‘Yes I did. He got very carried away – in fact I thought he was going to burst into tears.’

‘That’s him. He comes almost every night.’

‘Is he in love with you?’

‘No, no; not at all. He’s a pork butcher from Linz -charcuterie particularly. His name is Ludwig Huber. He came first with the Meat Retailers’ Outing and they came backstage and we got talking. He looks a bit gross but he’s sweet really. And listen, Sanna, because this could be big for you. He’s very rich - owns a whole chain of shops all over Lower Austria.

His wife died two years ago and he’s getting married again. And I told him that no one could make the bride’s trousseau except you!’

‘But why is he buying the bride’s trousseau ? Is she an orphan or something ?’

‘Her family’s very poor. Genteel but without a kreutzer, so he’s offered to see to all that. You can charge him a
lot
. They say he’s as hard as nails in business but he’s very chivalrous with women. You’ll be able to twist him round your little finger.’

‘What’s the bride like?’

‘I haven’t met her. She’s supposed to be pretty and very young. But listen, that’s not all. Who do you think is going to be the bridesmaid?’ I shook my head. ‘Rudi’s daughter! Edith!’

Alice was very pleased with the effect of this announcement. ‘You mean the Bluestocking? Are you serious?’ ‘That’s right. Apparently she and Fraulein Winter were at school together. And I’ve told Herr Huber that the bridesmaid’s dress must be designed together with the bride’s so Edith will be coming to you as well!’

I considered this. ‘If she’s as plain as you say, I’m going to have a problem.’

‘Well she is plain. Very. And the most awful prig. Rudi says she was a taking little thing when she was small but then her mother started making her into a Wunderkind and that was that.’

I had never met Edith but I knew a lot about her. I knew, for example, about the night on which she had been conceived. In the spring of 1891, a young solicitor named Rudi Sultzer found himself sitting, at a public lecture in the university, next to a high-minded girl named Laura Hartelmann. Nothing would normally have followed from that, but Rudi had that morning finished the last pot of raspberry jam made by his mother before she died. The consumption of jam made by people who subsequently die is a traumatic experience and Rudi had loved his mother, a witty and beautiful woman who troubled him little for she was Czech and preferred to live in

Prague. His eyes, during a pause in the discourse, filled with tears and Laura, always impressed by suffering, offered comfort.

They married, and owing to Laura’s passion for Goethe they went to Weimar for their honeymoon. There the bride retired to her bedroom (which overlooked a statue of the poet), put on a calico nightdress and for an hour read from the Master’s
Trilogy of Passion
while her new husband waited down below. Then she closed the book, opened the door, and in her high, clear voice called out ‘You may approach me now, Rudi!’

Rudi, to his eternal credit, approached her – and nine months later, Edith was born.

Nevertheless the strain of being married to such a high-minded woman began to tell on Rudi quite early on. Coming from a hard day at the office he would find a notice pinned to his wife’s bedroom door.
Silence, Frau Schultzer is reading Faust
, was the sort of information she liked to convey and while it was meant for the maids rather than for him, Rudi (who was also smaller than his wife and had worldly tastes like
food)
soon realized that he was not worthy of a woman who not only understood Goethe but also Schopenhauer, Leibnitz and the
feuilletons
in the
Wiener Tageblatt
. And when his little daughter also began to quote from Goethe and to give her toys away to the poor, he began to ‘approach’ my dear friend Alice.

‘I think Rudi would be terribly pleased if you could make Edith look nice,’ said Alice, looking at me appealingly. ‘For all she’s been brought up to be such an intellectual snob, he’s fond of her.’

Alice loves the Hof Advokat Herr Doktor Sultzer very much. For the past eight years she’s made for him a secure retreat in her little apartment in the Kohlmarkt and asked only the basic courtesies that any woman has a right to expect from her lover: a new dress now and then, a bracelet. No one in the Sultzer household knew of her existence yet she shared, if anybody did, his life. ‘I’ll do my best,’ I said.

But since the task was clearly going to be a formidable one, we poured our second glass of spritzer in different proportions. Less soda water and much more wine…

Chapter May

The first of May means different things to Nini and myself. For me it means lilies of the valley sold on every street corner in the city, and the certainty of summer to come.

For Nini it means Labour Day. Though Anarchists are not supposed to join organizations, being committed to spontaneity and freedom, she is so anxious for the revolution that she condescends to march with the Marxists. Today this caused a problem.

‘They’ve given me a red flag to carry – quite a big one, but it’s a proper scarlet: well, you know. I was going to wear my rose-pink muslin because it’s so warm, but red and pink… I suppose one
can
make it work, but it’s tricky. It’ll have to be my damask skirt, I suppose, and the broderie anglaise blouse.’ Her Magyar eyes slid in my direction. ‘I was wondering about your cameo brooch…?’

She never goes off on these jaunts without my feeling a distinct pang. Sometimes the police are idle and quiescent -at other times they suddenly turn fierce.

The newspaper Rip carries each morning to his owner has been full of information about which one tries to be excited: that they have abolished pigtails in China, that Kaiser Wilhelm is displeased with the British, angry with the Russians and not exactly delighted even with us. That the Giant Wheel in the Prater has got stuck again…

But the candles on our five chestnut trees are showing white, the English Miss has left off her tweeds and strides past in smocked Liberty lawn – and the rich cream dress is finished! It’s in my window and it’s a triumph. Sister Bonaventura in the convent made the silken self-coloured rose herself as though she knew the task was too important to be given to a novice, and the luscious cascades of lace foam down the skirt just as they did in my dreams.

Leah Cohen came yesterday and admired it so much that I was afraid she was going to buy it. It is shatteringly expensive, but her husband’s medical practice is flourishing and with the threat of a glorious new life in the Promised Land hanging over her head, she deserves it. I could have sold it to her in a minute, but I didn’t. There’s no one I like better than Leah, but she isn’t the right person for that dress.

The Countess von Metz has sent me a rusty implement which she says is a valuable dagger from the Turkish siege and the pawnbroker says is an outmoded tool for pruning fruit trees. It was accompanied by a note summoning me to her palace to bespeak a new two-piece which I shall ignore. Enough is enough.

We have found out who is playing the piano!

Nini returned safely from her march but with a flea. One of the few skills that her father, the Hungarian hussar who abandoned her and her mother in the slums of Budapest, had time to bequeath his daughter was an ancient method for hunting fleas. One strips naked and stands on something large and white - a tablecloth, a quilt cover - holding a cake of moistened washing soap. The flea becomes confused or perhaps a little chilled and hops down on to the white surface -whereupon one whacks him with the soap, impaling him on the sticky surface.

We had finished supper. I was sitting by the window, drinking my coffee. Upstairs in the attic, thumpings and poundings indicated the progress of the hunt. Then there was a shriek, the sound of running footsteps, and Nini appeared in the doorway, wrapped in a towel.

‘Oh, quick, Frau Susanna. Quick, quick – bring your opera glasses and come upstairs!’

I fetched the glasses and followed her.

Nini’s attic is almost level with the top floor opposite. They must have moved the piano: the shutters were open, the lamp had been lit.

I put the glasses to my eyes.

I’ll never forget what I saw, framed in the circle of the lenses as if on a lighted stage. The piano, bare, black, with the lid propped up, two candles in the sconces… No other furniture that I could see: no pictures on the wall, the gas mantle uncovered on its bracket.

My eyes travelled across the piano and down… further down than one would expect, to take in the thinnest, the most pathetic-looking creature you could imagine. A boy, scarcely ten years old, perched on two battered books. His black hair fell across his face, his skinny legs hung down towards the pedals that were out of sight. And all the time as I watched, this miniature creature’s hands moved with undiminished vigour across the keys.

I handed the glasses to Nini. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I see. That explains it. That’s why he suddenly breaks off. There are places where he just can’t reach.’

‘It’s a shame!’ said Nini indignantly. ‘It’s exploitation. It’s worse than sending children down mines, shutting him up like that all day.’

BOOK: Madensky Square
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