Authors: Eva Ibbotson
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult
31 March 1911
I woke in such a good mood this morning.
There was a dress floating about in my head; almost ready, almost there. Cream silk, the skirt trimmed with tiers and tiers of rough cream lace and the bodice tuckered, but unadorned except for a single rose. When I went to sleep I wasn’t sure about the colour of the rose, but when I woke I knew it had to be cream also: a self-coloured rose, a little passe, almost blowsy.
‘Dresses come to you like songs come to Schubert, Frau Susanna,’ a customer said to me once and I was so pleased, idiot that I was, that I undercharged her quite badly for the evening cape I was fitting.
But it wasn’t just the dress that made me happy. Even before I opened the shutters I knew that the bitter wind from the east had dropped at last and spring had come.
I got out of bed and caught sight of my reflection in the mirror above the chest of drawers, and it was all right still… even in the strong light of early morning it was all right. I’m thirty-six but I could have worn it, the rich cream dress with the bell sleeves cut on the cross and the silken rose. It wasn’t for me, of course, it was for the shop, but I could have carried it off.
‘From what strange ingredients you have fashioned your beauty,’ someone said to me once. ‘A mouth too large, a forehead too broad, the cheekbones of a Bohemian peasant… Still, one must concede the eyes – and the hair. Yes, certainly one must concede the hair.’
Actually it was not ‘someone’ who said this. It was Field Marshal Gernot von Lindenberg and he is not ‘someone’.
For a moment I saw in the mirror what he had seen, this fierce and ageing man, holding my face between his hands.
Then I blinked and was confronted by a woman with fair hair and blue eyes, entirely ordinary, no longer young.
I live above my shop in a small square in the Inner City. The bells of St Stephen’s Cathedral ring the hours for me and it’s only twelve minutes walk to the opera (all distances in Vienna are measured from the opera!) yet it’s so quiet and contained one could be in the country. My bedroom and the bathroom I insisted on putting in (to the amusement of the workmen) face the courtyard at the back where I have planted what is possibly the smallest pear tree in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but my sitting room and kitchen – and the salon of the shop of course – look out on Madensky Square.
And I was right about the spring! Leaning out of the window, still in my kimono, waiting for the water to boil for my coffee, I could see the water sparkling in the fountain, see the sunlight glint on the brass head of Colonel Madensky, somewhat beset by pigeons. The air was warm, and the smells that in the winter only come fleetingly from shops and doorways drifted voluptuously upwards: fresh bread… vanilla… saddle soap.
From the moment I saw the square I knew that this was where I wanted to live and have my shop. We have everything, you see: a fountain, a statue, a cafe – even our own small church. True the fountain in the centre has only one tier and no one on it could actually be said to
. When I first came here, eight years ago, I rather wished for stone heroes with rippling pectorals or goddesses with cornucopias and serpents in their hair. But our fountain just has Saint Florian, the patron saint of fires (and of fire engines), a gentle person holding a stone bucket with which to extinguish any flames that come his way. The church, whose little graveyard turns the west side of the square into a garden, is consecrated to him. It’s like a country church, our St Florian’s: white painted, with an onion dome. Inside there are no skeletal relics of martyrs gruesomely draped in silver filigree and pearls; no swirling Baroque altarpieces to bring the tourists flocking with their Baedekers – only a carved wooden Madonna whose infant really looks like a baby, not like some attenuated adult laid like a log across her lap. I know all the graves in the churchyard.
The Family Steiner (with geraniums), the Family Heinrid (with urns), the Family Schmidt, overgrown and neglected, but wild harebells have seeded themselves in the grass.
The east side of the square is protected from the busy, narrow Walterstrasse by five chestnut trees; and set back from them, turning away from the traffic and facing inwards, is Colonel Madensky on his plinth. I would have liked him to be an equestrian statue – it would have been roomier for the pigeons – but the Colonel, it seems, was not important enough to rate a horse.
He fought in the Italian campaigns and perished at the Battle of Solferino, a troublesome battle where everyone lost everybody else. The Emperor lost his commanding officers in the fog, the officers mislaid their troops and Austria lost Lombardy and Venice. Madensky was a kind man, they say, who wanted all his soldiers to have dark moustaches and gave free hair dye to those unfortunate enough to be fair. You can see that in his face; the desire that things should be the same as each other and not difficult.
Leaning out, I could see the sign of my shop. I didn’t know what to call it when I came here so in the end I decided just to use my Christian name: Susanna. And it worked! ‘Meet me at Susanna’s, people say now, or ‘Go and see Susanna; she’ll know what you need!’
There are only three shops in the square, all on the south side: – on my right, an antiquarian bookseller, on my left, a saddler. I’m in the middle – double-fronted, painted in shining black and gold, and very beautiful!
Opposite, at the cafe on the corner of the Walterstrasse, Joseph was setting out tables and chairs on the pavement, and that above all is a guarantee of spring. The Cafe Strauss isn’t a literary rendezvous: you won’t find Jeritza holding court there on the way home from the opera or Hugo von Hofmannsthal penning an ode. To get twenty people into the Cafe Strauss is quite an achievement, but Joseph’s eggs-in-a-glass are famous and the recipe for his mother’s poppyseed kipferl dates from the Turkish siege.
Still opposite, but on the other side, next to the church, in the green stuccoed Biedermeier house where the Schumachers live, Lisl, the maid, was hanging her feather bed out of the attic window. Then she vanished and I knew she had run downstairs to give breakfast in bed to Frau Schumacher who is expecting her long-awaited son. There are six little girls in the Schumacher household: Mitzi and Franzi; Steffi and Resi; Kati and Gisi – but the new baby will be a boy. No one believes that God can disappoint Herr Direktor Albert Schumacher yet again when he so desperately needs an heir for his timber business in the Gürtel. Lisl, who is convent educated, has promised to signal to us as soon as the child is born. If the news is good, she’ll hang out a white towel, if it is bad, a black apron.
‘Like Theseus and his sail, Frau Susanna,’ she explained.
Everyone calls me Frau Susanna, not Fraulein, though I have never been married. My surname, which is Weber, seems only to appear on invoices and delivery notes.
But I was waiting for the event that always heralds the day’s true beginning in the square and now it came. The door of the shabby apartment house directly facing me was opened by an invisible hand and a low-slung black dog with a purse round his neck appeared, descended the steps with an air of extreme self-importance, and turned into the Walterstrasse. Till he has fetched the
Neue Freie Presse
for his owner, the concierge, Rip is abstracted and unsociable, but once the moist newspaper has been laid at her feet he gives himself to the affairs of the populace, sitting in his doorway and deciding what may be allowed to happen and what must be prevented. He has the large, square-muzzled head of a Schnautzer and the tail of a muskrat, but his dreams, like his little legs, are Napoleonic.
By the time I’d made my coffee and carried it back to the window, the procession of choristers shepherded by Father Anselm had left the presbytery beside the saddler’s and was passing the fountain. St Florian’s only has a sung mass once a week so the choirboys the Father trains also sing at other churches. Sighs of sentiment often follow these sweet little boys in their scarlet coats and navy breeches, but I don’t sigh. I’m too busy watching Ernst Bischof, the star pupil, whose rendering of Mozart’s
reduces the congregation to tears, and who is a fiend. And sure enough, as
I watched, the charming child kicked out savagely at the shins of the boy next to him. The day Ernst Bischof’s voice breaks, Frau Schumacher and I are going to give a great party with champagne.
And now came the regulars who use the square as a passageway, taking a short cut through the alleyway of pleached hornbeams beside the churchyard towards the Ringstrasse trams.
Professor Starsky had changed his brown velour hat for a battered straw, beneath which his wispy grey hair spread out like an aureole. He comes past every morning and he’s usually carrying something in a brown paper parcel: a lizard with lung trouble or a tortoise that has expired inside its shell, for he is a Professor of Reptile Diseases and people send him their stricken pets from all over the Empire. Seeing me leaning unsuitably like Rapunzel from the window, he raised his hat.
‘Good morning, Frau Susanna.’
‘Good morning, Herr Professor. What is it today?’
He held up the parcel. ‘A stump-tailed skink. From a man who keeps a pet shop in Bolzen.’
Three years ago I found the Professor standing sadly in the churchyard where his wife is buried, and brought him in for a cup of coffee. Last summer, sheltering in my shop from a sudden rainstorm, he proposed to me.
‘I wouldn’t expect you to love me of course,’ he said, ‘an accomplished, beautiful woman like you. But I have a house as you know, and a villa on the Grundlsee - and of course I wouldn’t bring work home’ - and here he’d touched the leg of a pickled chameleon protruding stiffly from its wrappings -‘not if you were to do me the honour.’
It was a nice proposal; I refused it nicely and we remained friends.
After Professor Starsky came the English Miss, striding to the Volksgarten to exercise her setter bitch. In her heather-mixture tweeds, high breasted and long-legged like her dog, she is a sight so splendid that for a moment she brings life in the square to a halt. Joseph put down the cloth with which he was wiping his tables and stared; in his Biedermeier house, Herr Schumacher left his six daughters at the breakfast table and hurried to the window. And Rip descended the three steps from his doorway, quivered, advanced… and recalled himself to sanity, for the bitch, like her owner, belongs to the unattainable world of myth and dreams.
The clock of the cathedral struck seven, and a minute and a quarter later our own St Florian’s followed suit. Now I could see Gretl, my sewing maid, turn in from the Walterstrasse between the chestnut trees with my breakfast kipferl and a jug of milk. Time to begin the day.
As I turned from the window I heard again the sound that for the past weeks has become as much a part of our lives as the plashing of the fountain or the bells of the church: the sound of someone practising the piano. It comes from the top floor of the apartment house directly across from me - from the smallest, shabbiest attic flat - and it goes on relentlessly from morning to night. Scales first, dozens and dozens of them; chromatic scales, scales in octaves, arpeggios… Then etudes by Chopin, by Czerny, by heaven knows who; Bach preludes, some pieces by Liszt… and of late a Beethoven sonata broken off suddenly in the last movement. Never in my life have I heard anyone practise so continuously or with such strength, and the strange thing is, I don’t know who is playing. We watched the piano being hoisted into the house and a thin, stooped man with greasy sideburns - very eastern looking -goes in and out, but once I thought I heard the music after I’d seen him go out across the square.
I listened for a little longer. Then I dressed and pinned up my hair – after which I climbed the stairs to the attics and went to wake Nini.
It is not actually my business to wake my chief assistant. She should wake of her own accord and be at her machine by seven thirty, but Nini is a passionate Anarchist and spent the previous night at a revolutionary meeting in the suburb of Ottakring. She went in high-heeled white kid sandals which cost her nearly three weeks’ wages and in an ostrich feather boa borrowed from the shop, and why I put up with this I really do not know.
Most of my sewing is done by outworkers, but I keep two girls full time in the workroom behind the shop. Gretl, who sleeps out, is a little packhorse of a girl, willing and stupid. She runs errands and does the hems and picot edgings and her life centres round her fiance and his fire engine, a prima donna of a machine now threatened with mechanization.
Nini is another matter. Her stitches are as small as mine, her taste is unerring, and though she is really too thin to model I allow her into the salon to show the clothes.
She was just waking, stretching… extending one foot from beneath the coverlet. A foot whose elongated El Greco toes were caked with blood.
This made me immediately and justifiably angry.
‘Will you once and for all not go on marches in unsuitable shoes? I will not have blood-stained people touching my fabrics and modelling my clothes.’