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Authors: Eva Ibbotson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult

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BOOK: Madensky Square
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When in doubt Herr Huber, like the rest of us, turned to God. He’d gone into the Capuchin church in the Neuermarkt and asked God whether he should rent 167 Augustinergasse and God had said no. The access at the back was poor and the drainage doubtful.

Then just as he was about to rise to his feet, Herr Huber had beheld a vision.

‘A vision,’ he repeated. ‘There is no other word for it, Frau Susanna: a vision.’

Magdalena Winter was in white, she was in a state of rapt devotion and as she walked down the aisle past Herr Huber in the almost empty church, she smiled.

‘At the Lord Jesus of course, not at me. At her thoughts… But I cannot tell you…’

Herr Huber, however, did tell me. Of his involuntary pursuit. Of the days spent hovering outside the apartment where she lived. Of at last making himself known to her mother. Of the unbelievable bliss, the incredulity when he discovered, after months of patient courtship that, given certain conditions, she would marry him.

I happened to be looking up from my sewing as Herr Huber, in his slow dialect, pronounced the words ‘certain conditions’ and I did not like what I saw. His red face had flushed to an even deeper crimson and a feverish exaltation glittered in his

round, brown eyes. What kind of ‘conditions’ did a penniless girl lay down for marriage to a rich man in his prime?

To conceal my disquiet I asked about the bridesmaid and her mother. Had Herr Huber met the Sultzers?

Herr Huber had. ‘Frau Sultzer is a most intelligent woman. She has an amazing mind.’

‘And Edith?’

‘Fraulein Sultzer is very clever too. She is studying Anglo-Saxon at the university. The epic of
Beowulf
in particular.’

‘Could you describe her at all?’

There was a long pause while Herr Huber once more had recourse to the toilet water and the handkerchief. His brow was furrowed and I could see him straining to supply me with an encouraging fact.

Then his frown cleared. ‘She doesn’t have whiskers,’ he pronounced. A last dab with the handkerchief, and then he added, ‘Yet.’

I have just made a complete fool of myself. I went to see Alice to tell her about Herr Huber’s visit and on the way back I thought I saw across the width of the Kartner Ring a figure that I recognized.

Yes, I was sure that I knew that soldier in the uniform of the Bohemian Dragoons with his slow gait and clumsy boots. even thought I could smell across the heads of the fashionable crowd who promenaded there, the whiff of the raw onions that nothing can prevent Corporal Hatschek from chewing when he is off duty. And my heart raced, excitement coursed through me – and I lifted my skirts ready to hurry across the road.

But the Ringstrasse is wide, the hansom cabs are never in a hurry. By the time I’d reached the other side there was no sign of him.

I’d imagined him then. Conjured him up out of my deepest need. It’s not the first time that I’ve run across the road like a homesick child towards this onion-chewing corporal and found he was a mirage. Well, so be it. There is only one cure for what ails me, and thank heaven I have it in abundance. Work.

They’ve let him out, the little Count of Monte Cristo, the walled-up piano-playing child. It was early evening and I had just shut the shop when Nini called to me:

‘Look, Frau Susanna. He’s down in the square!’

A small dark-suited figure, a Goya dwarf, had appeared, framed in the doorway of the apartment house. There was an air of bewilderment about him: he was like the prisoners in
Fidelio
who blink at the sudden light.

Then he moved stiffly out into the square, now golden in the last rays of the setting sun. There was no one else with him and he had nothing in his hand: no ball or spinning top or hoop. When he reached the fountain in the centre he stopped, but he didn’t bend his head to search for fish or touch the water or run his fingers along the decorations on the rim. He simply stood there, and I realized that he had absolutely no idea of how to play.

This was not a child; it was an unnaturally compressed adult. One sees them sometimes in Flemish paintings: tiny burgermaster’s daughters, their heads caught in vice-like ruffe; their small plain faces unutterably grave. Velasquez painted them at the Spanish court; knee-high infantas, imprisoned in silk.

I watched for a few minutes from the window. Then I went out into the square.

Close to, it was worse still: the white face, the dark clothes, the air of ‘otherness’ which clung to this non-child. His black hair under the cap was long and greasy; the meagre neck unwashed.

No use putting one’s arm round such an old, old soul. I felt that if I asked his name he would stamp his skinny legs and vanish into the ground. So I gave him only the greeting we’d used, passing each other, in the country when I was a child.

‘Gruss Gott:

The child that was not a child did not reply. He only looked at me: at the blue ribbon threaded through the flounce on my skirt, at the forget-me-nots tucked into my belt, at my white blouse… His black and eastern eyes, too small, too melancholy, stayed on my face as I looked down on him.

Then he laid one arm across his narrow chest; the other vanished behind his back. His feet in their dusty shoes came together – and in silence he gave me a perfect concert master’s bow.

The Baroness Leitner came to order a travelling suit. Her husband is going to America on a diplomatic mission and she is to accompany him. She insisted on trying on the rich cream dress, and it fitted her too. I thought it only fair to warn her, though, that it was not a very practical dress to take on a journey – very crushable and not at all easy to clean.

After she left, saying she would think it over, I saw the girls look at each other in puzzlement. It’s true that I need to get the money back that the dress cost me. True, too, that the Baroness only
slightly
resembles Frederick the Great. But I know that out there, somewhere, is a woman whose life will be transfigured by this dress and until she comes I have to wait.

Meanwhile I have a new client. We were having lunch when the phone rang down in the workroom.

‘It’s the Hof Minister’s wife – Frau Egger. She wants to come this afternoon.’

‘Tell her five o’clock.’

I wasn’t as gratified as I should have been. Hof Minister Willibald Egger, who has crawled and schemed his way to the top of the Civil Service, is a most unpleasant man who delights in pulling down beautiful old buildings to improve ‘mobility’ and ‘traffic flow’. Nobody believes that he is greatly concerned with the problems of the Viennese cab driver. What he wants is to achieve ennoblement or have a street named after him. So far a Willibald Egger-gasse has eluded him, but the rumours that cause poor Joseph such distress all emanate from Egger’s department of ‘Development’.

‘You shouldn’t dress his wife,’ raged Nini. ‘He’s an absolute swine. Do you know what he does? If the lunch isn’t ready the second he comes in from the ministry, he picks up a great cow bell and rings it and rings it till the poor girl rushes in with the soup. The maids have to line up every Saturday to have their fingernails inspected and he bullies his coachmen so much that they’ve had five in a year. Not to mention the Nasty Little Habit.’

The news that Herr Egger had a Nasty Little Habit reached us in a roundabout way via a girl called Lily who works in the post office and is currently enjoying his favours. Or rather she is receiving them; she doesn’t seem to be enjoying them very much. Unfortunately while she told Nini that the Habit existed, she did not tell her what it was, and this I must admit I found unfair.

Frau Egger, when she came, wanted me to make her a military cloak. I did not at this point groan aloud because dressmakers who groan when they feel like it do not stay long in business, but my spirits sank. No week passes but some Hausfrau who has attended a passing out parade or a bandmasters’ rally arrives, convinced that a sweeping arc of cloth with epaulettes will turn her into a figure of glamour and romance. No use explaining that hussars do not have bosoms, that the rakish swirl of their cloaks depends on a virtual absence of behinds…?

‘Perhaps a modified version,’ I suggested to Frau Egger, but I did not expect to get my way too easily. With her long, pale face and tombstone teeth, the Minister’s wife uncannily resembled those breeding ewes which get stuck in ditches, resisting with mindless obstinacy all efforts to set them free.

I went through to the workroom to fetch some loden cloth and give the bad news to the girls. When I returned Frau Egger was laying a set of buttons down on my desk: brass buttons, big ones, with a curious design – an owl, its head transfixed by a lance and a motto consisting of a single word:
Aggredi
. I have reason to know something about Austrian military uniforms, but these I had never seen.

‘I found them in a box in the attic,’ said Frau Egger. ‘They’re not my husband’s – he’s never been in the army though he behaves as if…’ She broke off shaking her head. ‘But I thought they’d look ever so nice on the cloak. Realistic’

‘Frau Egger, these are genuine army buttons. To clean them you need a button stick and brass polish and a special brush. Even an experienced batman can take an hour to polish buttons.’

‘But they’re so pretty, aren’t they? I looked up
Aggredi
in

the Latin dictionary. It means “Charge!” Like in “Charge!” or “Attack!” or “Advance!”’

About this something would have to be done. I have my reputation to think of, and cannot have my clients wandering down the Kartnerstrasse with pierced birds on the bosom, and labelled ‘Charge!’

I began to sketch a design for a cloak that Frau Egger would regard as military, but would in fact be nothing of the sort. She nodded and at first seemed pleased, but soon she grew restless. Her eyes roamed to the door of the workroom, she kneaded her gloves, picked up an ashtray. And when Nini came with samples of braid to show her, she stared at her fiercely.

‘Is that the girl who throws bombs?’ she said when Nini had gone again.

I raised my eyebrows, a thing I’m rather good at.

‘I mean, is she the Anarchist ? The one who wants to murder us all in our beds? Because I wonder if I could have a word with her in private ? I think she knows a girl who’s a friend of my husband’s.’ Here the poor woman flushed crimson. ‘A girl he’s taken an interest in. Lily, she’s called.’

My heart sank. Wronged wives can never quite believe that one is powerless to help them. ‘If you’d just have a word with her, Frau Susanna,’ they say. ‘If you’d just tell her what it’s doing to me and the children.’ There is no one to whom a woman in that state will not turn to: a window cleaner, a dustman… anyone connected with the hussy who ruined their lives. I understood now why Frau Egger, whose clothes showed all the signs of home dressmaking at its most dire, had come

tome.

‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid that’s impossible; Nini is just going out on an errand. Now about the collar… I would suggest a contrasting fabric in a darker tone. How about velveteen – or would you like to use fur ?’

‘Why did she look at me like that ?’ said Nini later, putting away the unfortunate buttons.

I told her.

‘Poor soul. But honestly I don’t think she’s got too much to worry about. Lily really doesn’t like him very much – it’s not just the Nasty Little Habit – it’s that he’s so horribly mean.’

They let the little Count of Monte Cristo out most evenings now. He always walks slowly down the steps while Rip looks on, and goes to stand by the fountain. He still has no toys and he still doesn’t play with the water or go anywhere else.

I try not to get involved. I don’t really understand what is happening in those bare rooms across the square and I’m afraid of becoming indignant at what is being done to him; the endless hours of practising, the unhealthy, imprisoned life. But I’m not musical enough to understand if it’s justified. Perhaps this pathetic shrimp is touched by greatness, but it’s hard to believe.

All the same, some evenings I can’t bear the sight of the lonely black speck by the fountain and I go across and have a few words with him.

His name is Sigismund and I smiled when I heard that, for they were the mightiest kings of all the kings of Poland, the Sigismunds, ruling over the country when her borders stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic. The sad man with the side whiskers is his uncle, and they walked almost all the way from Galicia with enough money for the hire of a piano and six months in Vienna for the child.

‘And after six months they go,’ said the detestable concierge. ‘Though mind you, they’re not Jews like I thought. There’s a crucifix in his room and the boy’s got one round his neck. Not that Poles are much better.’

I’d noticed that too: the wooden cross hanging on a frayed piece of string between the lapels of his grubby shirt.

His mother is dead, but I didn’t need the concierge to tell me that.

‘There’s someone in the shop asking to see you personally. A corporal. A man of the people,’ said Nini approvingly. ‘He smells of onions and he won’t see anyone but you. Shall I ask him to go away? He can’t possibly be going to buy a dress.’

I couldn’t speak for a moment. I’d been right then. It was Hatschek. He was back in Vienna.

Nini was looking at me with her head on one side. She was saying something. Asking me if I was all right. ‘I’ll tell him to go. It’s just that he’s been here before, I think. His face seemed

familiar.’

‘No, don’t tell him to go. Send him up here.’ And as she continued to look at me curiously, I said curtly: ‘You heard me. Send him up.’

But I didn’t want him to come too quickly. I wanted to spin it out, the moment till I saw Hatschek with his broad, stupid face, his dogged blue eyes, his cauliflower ears. I wanted a respite before I smelled the onion, felt the rough red hands. And I rose quickly and went to the mirror to make sure that my curls fell as I wanted over my forehead, that the bow which fastened the neck of my blouse was perfectly tied, for how I look to this illiterate Bohemian peasant matters more than I can say.

‘Frau Susanna!’ He had entered, clicked his clumsy boots together, tried to salute – but this I do not permit, and moving forwards I took his hands in mine.

BOOK: Madensky Square
11.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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