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Authors: Eva Ibbotson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult

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BOOK: Madensky Square
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Frau Sultzer arrived on it this morning, bringing her daughter Edith to be measured for her bridesmaid’s dress.

Their arrival created a certain stir. Rip entirely lost his sang-froid and danced barking round the machine as it wobbled to a halt; Joseph in the cafe stood with his mouth hanging open.

Frau Sultzer dismounted from the front of the machine, her daughter Edith from the back. Two briefcases were unstrapped from the carrier…

And my admiration for Rudi Sultzer leapt to new heights. He might not have ‘approached’ his wife often, but he had ‘approached’ her.

On this wonderful May morning, Laura Sultzer wore a musty brown skirt with a swollen hem which undulated like a switchback and a knitted cardigan under which the sleeves of her blouse bulged in a way which made one wonder if she had secreted some of her rescued rats. Her nose was sharp and long, the thriving hairs which covered her chin and upper lip ranged interestingly from white to grey to dusty black and as she came towards me, I caught the musty odour one encounters when opening ancient wardrobes.

But my business was with her daughter.

Edith was shorter than her mother, with a bad skin and bewildered grey eyes behind the kind of spectacles that Schubert would have discarded as out of date. She looked anaemic, and beneath the bobble-fringed tablecloth she seemed to be wearing, I guessed at her father’s bandy legs.

I asked the ladies to sit down and offered Frau Sultzer some fashion magazines which she refused with a shudder. ‘Thank you, we have brought our own reading matter,’ she said.

The briefcases were then unpacked. Out of hers, awesomely stamped with the initials L.S., Frau Sultzer fetched a volume of Schopenhauer and a propelling pencil. Out of Edith’s – a bulging and distressed-looking object of paler hue – she took a volume of
Beowulf
.

‘I feel I should inform you that my daughter is entered for the Plotzenheimer Essay Prize in Anglo-Saxon studies,’ she continued, ‘so I would be grateful if you would keep her fittings as brief as possible. It is imperative that she wastes no time.’

‘Her fittings will be exactly as long as necessary, Frau Sultzer,’ I said.

I then led Edith away, removing
Beowulf
from her nervous clasp, and while Nini measured her, I tried to think what I could do to make this unprepossessing lump into a pretty bridesmaid.

The first step was obvious.

‘Fraulein Edith, if I am to dress you properly, one thing is essential. A proper corset.’

She stared at me, her short-sighted eyes widening behind her spectacles. ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t! Mama would never permit it. She doesn’t approve of them. My underclothes are made by a lady who comes to mother’s Goethe readings.’

‘Yes, I can see that. But I really cannot sew for someone whose bosom has to be looked for every time they come. It needn’t be anything very tight or constricting. I’ll give you the name of an excellent woman in the Graben: she’s not expensive.’ I wrote a name on a piece of paper and handed it to Edith. ‘After all, there’s no need to trouble your mother; just mention to your father that I insisted on a foundation garment. I’m sure he’s aware of the existence of such things.’

Edith shook her head despairingly. Her light brown hair was full of dandruff, but I refrained from suggesting a good shampoo and raw liver sandwiches for it was clear that the Bluestocking, at the moment, could take no more.

‘Anyway, no one will look at me,’ she said, ‘not with Magdalena as a bride.’

‘Anyone I dress gets looked at,’ I said firmly, but I was curious about Magdalena Winter and Edith answered my questions freely enough.

Magdalena and Edith had attended the same school since they were seven years old. From the first it seemed Magdalena had been spared the traditional disasters of childhood: chicken pox, acne, braces on her teeth. Not only was she beautiful, she was exceedingly devout.

‘She always said she wanted to be a nun. Always. But of course when you look like that… All the same, we were very surprised when she accepted Herr Huber.’ Edith broke off, flushing. ‘I don’t mean… I mean, Herr Huber is very kind. He called on us and brought us a salami, but we’re vegetarians and Mother gave it to the poor. Only, Magdalena had a lot of offers and some of them were very grand – and she’d refused them all.’

I tried to visualize this paragon. ‘Is she dark or fair ?’

‘Fair. Almost white. In the nativity play she was always the Virgin Mary and her hair sort of rippled out over her blue mantle. People just gasped.’

‘And you ?’ I asked the Bluestocking, ‘what were you in the nativity play?’

‘Oh, I was a sheep,’ said Edith. ‘I was always a sheep.’

Back in the salon, Frau Sultzer was still bent over her Schopenhauer, occasionally pencilling a
Yes
! or an
Indeed
! into the margin.

How sad for poor Schopenhauer to have died before he knew how absolutely Laura Sultzer agreed with him.

I had intended to see the bride and the bridesmaid together but Herr Huber had sent a message to say that Fraulein Winter was unwell. She had a chest infection and the doctor had advised her to stay indoors. Since there was a great deal of work to be done on her trousseau I’d suggested that Nini and I go round to her house with some samples, and as soon as lunch was over, the butcher appeared in his new canary-yellow motor to drive us to where she lived.

Magdalena’s mother was the daughter of an army officer who had fought at Koniggratz; her father was a taxidermist at the Naturhistorisches Museum who suffered from chronic asthma and had been retired early on a shockingly inadequate pension.

‘The elephant seal at the top of the main staircase is his work,’ said Herr Huber, steering his motor down the Wipplingerstrasse. ‘A very able man.’

Magdalena had two younger brothers, twins often who were destined for the army. They had fallen behind at school and now had to be coached for the Cadet Corps.

I’m taking care of all that, of course,’ said the butcher. ‘I regard it as a sacred trust.’

He left us at the entrance to the Kreuzer Hof and we made our way through an archway into a sunless courtyard and up an outside staircase to the third floor. The smell of sauerkraut and drains accompanied us; on the dank, arcaded passage that ran right round the building, aproned women with crying children filled buckets at the communal taps.

Frau Winter opened the door to us, mumuring a brave lie about it being the maid’s day off. The tiny parlour was spotless and every surface was covered with crocheted doilies or antimacassars or lace-fringed cloths. There were pictures of the Kaiser, of the murdered Empress Elisabeth – and one portrait of an army officer whose insignia I fortunately recognized.

‘Ah, the 3rd Light Cavalry! The corps that fought so magnificently at Koniggratz.’

Frau Winter’s pale eyes lit up. ‘Yes. That’s my father. The boys are going to join his old regiment. They
have
to!’ In her voice I sensed her desperation, the endless fight against the poverty and squalor by which she was surrounded. No wonder Magdalena had felt obliged to marry a wealthy man.

The twins now appeared, clicked their heels, bowed. With their cropped flaxen hair, light blue eyes and sturdy physique they were every recruiting officer’s dream.

‘Go and tell your sister that the ladies are here,’ Frau Winter ordered – and to the faint, unheeded sounds of inquiry from the taxidermist behind a door, we were led to Magdalena’s room.

It was an extraordinary place. All the rooms were dark, for Frau Winter had placed the thickest netting between herself and the communal passage outside, but Magdalena’s room, which had only a small high window, was crepuscular. One felt as if one were in an aquarium or deep below the sea.

‘Oh!’ Nini beside me had given a little squeak, her hand touched mine for reassurance – and no wonder.

All round the room – on the shelf above the bed, on the chest of drawers, on the small table, there stood glass jars and inside each of them something white and sinister appeared to float. Curled up embryos? Pickled organs? Had we strayed into some kind of mortuary?

Then our eyes grew used to the gloom and we could see that they were figures made from wax: little doll-like models of martyrs and saints.

‘Do you like them?’ came a voice from the bed. ‘I made them myself.’

Magdalena rose and stood before us in her dressing gown and I forgot the waxen puppets and simply stared. Both Herr Huber and Edith Sultzer had described Magdalena as beautiful, but nothing had prepared me for what I saw. The girl was tall and slender; her loose hair rippled to her knees, her curving eyes were the colour of lapis lazuli.

‘The ivory brocade you bought from Seligmann?’ whispered Nini.

But I was ahead of Nini. I had already cut the brocade into panels floating down from the shoulders, drawn the back ones into a train… had wired the top of the bodice so that Magdalena’s throat came out of the cloth like a lily from the stem.

Til show them to you,’ said Magdalena, and moving gracefully over to the chest of drawers, she took down one of the glass bottles and handed it to me. ‘That’s Saint Lucy; she’s one of my favourites.’

The doll in her waxen grotto was holding in her pink-tipped hands a velvet cushion on which rested her gouged-out eyes.

This one’s Saint Nepoumak,’ she went on. ‘He’s got the

rope round his neck, ready to be thrown in the river. And the

one next to him is Saint Katherine. She was broken on the

wheel, that’s why she’s in two parts like that. Though she

joined up later.’

It was impossible to stop Magdalena as she moved tenderly among her friends: Saint Eulogius holding his severed head, Saint Agatha covering her cut-off breasts; Saint Cecilia smothered in her bath… I think she would have spent all afternoon showing us her treasures, but I now said firmly that it was time we got down to work.

At once the life, the animation, went out of the extraordinary girl. She replaced Saint Futurosa in his hair shirt and sat down obediently on the bed like a child getting ready to listen to a tiresome teacher.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disconcerted. Magdalena nodded politely while I sketched what was possibly going to be the most beautiful wedding dress ever made, she acquiesced in my design for a Renaissance evening gown in cloth of gold; she agreed that a cloak of midnight-blue street velvet would become her.

But she was bored. Unmistakably, unconcealably bored.

Walking back to the shop, taking deep breaths of fresh air, Nini and I tried to make sense of what we had seen. For it seemed that Edith was right. Magdalena had indeed turned down a number of offers from men who’d been quite as I prepared as Herr Huber to help the family. There’d been a handsome army captain who wanted to take the boys down to his estate in Styria, a young banker with a house in Paris…

‘Of course we’re grateful to Herr Huber,’ Frau Winter had said as she showed us out, ‘though I’m glad my father’s not alive to see her marry into trade.’

If it was pressure from her family that had made Magdalena agree to a rich marriage, her choice of suitor, clearly, was all her own.

Alice continues to be worried about Rudi.

‘He still looks so wretchedly tired,’ she said when I met her at the Landtmann. ‘That awful wife of his has got this gaggle of females called the Group. They come to the house and listen to her rabbiting on about Goethe, and the maids spend hours putting things on pumpernickel – you know how literary groups love to
eat
– and when Rudi comes in they just lift their heads and look at him like cows. I must say, Sanna, it seems to me so
wrong
that a man should have to endure all that just because he sat next to someone the day he’d finished his dead mother’s raspberry jam.’

I agreed. It’s always struck me as grossly unfair that men have to carry lifelong burdens on account of some brief and arbitrary accident, and I told Alice about my bank manager, Herr Dreiss.

‘He went to Budapest to see his brother and they went to a cafe where the gypsies were playing. Proper ones, you know, with all those czembaloms and things. And there was this girl from Wiener Neustadt at the next table: the most boring girl with buck teeth - he’d never have looked at her ordinarily -and by the next morning they were engaged. Just because of the gypsies. She has a baby every year and she’s brought her mother and her aunt to live. You’d think he could so easily have gone to some other cafe. Even in Budapest there must be a cafe where you don’t get yowled at by gypsies.’

At this point we got so depressed that we decided to boost our spritzers with a couple of schnapps, and I asked Alice about Magdalena’s headdress.

‘I want to use freshwater pearls braided into her hair and then take them up into a circlet to hold the veil. Only I’m not sure how to do it without getting that ridiculous pill box effect’

Alice nodded and took the pencil from me. ‘You need that very soft wire they use for aigrettes. Yvonne has some – I’ll get it for you. Then you twist it like this…’

She drew exactly what I wanted and I thanked her. ‘You’re

wasted on operetta, I’ve told you before. God meant you for a milliner.’

She sighed. ‘He certainly didn’t mean me for an ageing village maiden yowling in a dirndl for forty kronen a week.’

The schnapps came. We drank it and felt better, and Alice inquired about Edith.

‘Actually I don’t quite know what to do about her. It seems an extraordinary choice, to have her as an only bridesmaid. I can put her into moss green crepe, a princess line and all that. Hay safe… But I’d like to do better for the poor Bluestocking. Always a sheep in the nativity play and that dreadful briefcase foil of
Beowulf..
:

For a moment I shut my eyes and tried to shake my mind free of all preconceived notions about Edith Sultzer. I can do that sometimes and get a kind of instant cameo of a person’s essence. It doesn’t last long, but it gives me a clue and I design to that.

I had forgotten about the schnapps. What flashed before my dosed eyes was a bedroom with a french window leading out on to a verandah which overlooked a wide grey river. Inside the room was a large and tumbled bed and on it a plump Edith Sultzer in black lace underwear bounced up and down.

BOOK: Madensky Square
13.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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