Authors: C. W. Gortner
For my father
I am, at heart, a gentleman.
“I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MY BIRTH.”
he first time I fell in love, I was twelve years old.
It happened at the Auguste-Viktoria-Schule in the suburban district of Schöneberg, southwest of Berlin. Here in a squat building defended by wrought-iron gates, whose extravagant plaster facade concealed a warren of icy classrooms, I studied grammar, arithmetic, and history, followed by homemaking skills and an hour of bracing calisthenics before ending the long day with a perfunctory French class.
I disliked school, but not because I was unintelligent. In my childhood, a series of governesses had overseen my education, although my year-older sister, Elisabeth, known in our family as Liesel, received most of their attention because of her poor health. English and French, deportment, dancing and music were our daily regimen, from which our mother demanded unimpeachable perfection. Though better prepared than most for the rigors of institutional learning, I disliked school because I didn’t fit in with the jam-smeared fingers and confidences of my fellow students, all of whom had known one another since infancy and dubbed me
for my timidity, unaware that “timid” was the last word my mother would have used to describe me.
Not that Mutti would tolerate a word of complaint. When Papa died
of cardiac arrest in my sixth year, the urgent need to economize had subsumed our grief. Appearances must be maintained. After all, the widow Josephine Dietrich was of the distinguished Felsings of Berlin, founders of the renowned Felsing Clockmaker and Watch Company, which had operated under imperial patent for over a century. Mutti refused to accept her family’s charity, though Papa had been a suburban police lieutenant whose death benefit stretched only so far. As soon as he was buried, the governesses vanished, deemed an unaffordable luxury. Because of Liesel’s vaguely diagnosed indispositions, Mutti took employment as a housekeeper and set forth an educational schedule for my sister to follow at home. While Mutti squeezed me into the starched gray uniform, twined my strawberry blond hair into braids topped by a gigantic taffeta bow, and with patent-leather shoes pinching my toes, marched me to the Schule, where irreproachable spinsters could mold my character.
“You will behave,” Mutti admonished me. “Mind your manners and do as you’re told. Do I make myself clear? Don’t let me hear you give yourself airs. You’ve had more advantages than many, but no daughter of mine should boast of her accomplishments.”
She needn’t have worried. At home, I was often reprimanded for my competitive spirit, always seeking to outdo Liesel, but once I entered the schoolyard, I realized it was preferable to act as though I knew as little as possible, overwhelmed by the tribal cliques and suspicious stares of my classmates. No one could suspect I had more than a rudimentary understanding of anything, including French—a language which every well-bred girl must learn but no well-bred German girl should become too familiar with, carrying as it did a hint of the forbidden with its sharp
. Feigning ignorance, and to deflect attention, I assumed the last seat in the last desk at the back of the classroom and kept to myself, a mouse hiding in plain sight.
Until the day our new French teacher arrived.
Strands of chestnut-colored hair escaped her chignon, and her rounded cheeks were flushed, as if she’d been racing down the hall, late for her entrance—which she was. The class bell had rung and the girls, already
passing scribbled notes torn from their primers, huddled across the aisles to exchange whispers.
All of a sudden she swept in, the long-awaited replacement for Madame Servine, who had suffered a sudden fall that precipitated her retirement. With sweat dappling her brow from the unseasonable July heat, our new teacher dropped the books she carried onto her desk with a resounding thump, making every girl jolt upright.
Madame Servine had not abided dawdling. Many here had felt the sharp rap of her ruler on their knees or knuckles for perceived insolence; this startling young woman with her disheveled air and collection of tomes might prove equally formidable.
From my habitual seat in the back of the room, I peered past the shoulders of those in front of me to where she stood, mopping her forehead with a handkerchief.
” she said. “
Il fait si chaud
. I didn’t think Germany got so hot.”
A swirl of emotion stirred in my belly.
No one said a word. With a careless gesture, she stuffed her sodden handkerchief into her shirtwaist. “
mesdemoiselles. I am Mademoiselle Bréguand and I’m your new instructress for the rest of the term.”
The introduction was unnecessary. We knew who she was; we’d been expecting her for weeks. While the school sought a replacement for Madame Servine, we’d spent this hour in interminable study sessions overseen by caustic Frau Becker. Now, our new teacher’s crisp accent thickened the hush. The unmistakable carol of Paris sang in her voice, and I could feel the girls around me cringe. They’d called Madame
l’ Ancien Régime
for her lorgnette and the way her dentures clacked when she enunciated
in toneless superiority and her high-necked black gown dating to the turn of the century. This woman wore a collared blouse with lace trim at her neck and wrists, her slim figure set off by a fashionable ankle-length skirt that showed off smart walking boots. Years younger than Madame, she was certain to be more energetic.
I inched up from my slouch.
” she declared. “
Ouvrez vos livres, s’il vous plaît
The girls sat motionless. As I reached for my primer, Mademoiselle sighed and explained in German, “Your notebooks, please. Open them.”
I bit back a smile.
“We are conjugating verbs today, yes?” she said, surveying the class. No one responded. None of the girls had bothered to so much as glance at their primers since Madame had taken her opportune tumble. They didn’t care. From the few conversations I’d overheard, their lifelong aspiration consisted of marrying as soon as possible to escape their parents.
Kinder, Küche, Kirche
: children, kitchen, church. It was the sole ambition inculcated in every German girl, like our mothers and grandmothers before us. What possible use could speaking French offer, unless one had the misfortune to marry a foreigner?
Mademoiselle Bréguand oversaw the anxious ruffling of pages, unaware of, or unwilling to comment on, the frantic edge in her students’ movements. Delinquency in homework was an offense everyone courted yet feared. Madame had been known to keep a girl at her desk until nightfall, toiling until she either completed her assignment or dropped in exhaustion.
Then, to my disbelief, I saw Mademoiselle flash a mischievous smile. It was so unexpected in this place of restraint, where teachers brooded like ravens, that its warmth stunned me, turning the swirl in my stomach into whipped cream.
“Let’s start with the verb ‘to be.’
Être: je suis, je serai, j’étais. Tu es, tu seras, tu étais. Il est, il sera, il était. Nous sommes, nous serons, nous étions
. . .” As she spoke, she paced the narrow aisles between our desks, her head tilted, listening to the mutilated recital coming from the students. It was a pathetic display, evidence of truancy and utter disregard for the language, but she didn’t correct a single one, repeating the conjugations as the girls followed her lead.
Then she came before me. She halted. Her hand lifted. The girls went quiet. Fixing her amber-green gaze on me, Mademoiselle said, “
Répétez, s’il vous plaît?
I wanted to sound as awful as the others to avoid being singled out. But my tongue disobeyed me and I found myself saying haltingly, “
Vous êtes. Vous serez. Vous étiez
A stifled giggle from a girl nearby sounded, in my ears, like a slap.
The warm smile returned to Mademoiselle’s lips. This time, to my dismay and simultaneous joy, she directed it at me. “And the rest?”
In a whisper, I said, “
Vous soyez. Vous seriez. Vous fûtes. Vous fussiez
“Now, use the verb in a sentence.”
I gnawed my lower lip, considering. Then I burst out, “
Je voudrais être connue comme personne qui vous plaise.
” The moment I spoke, I regretted it. What had possessed me to say something so—so overt, so forward? So
Although I didn’t dare look, I could feel the others staring at me. They might not have understood my actual words, but the way I had spoken them was enough.
I had unmasked myself.
” said Mademoiselle softly. “
She proceeded down the aisle, chanting the refrain and signaling to the girls to follow suit. I sat, frozen, until a finger jabbed my ribs and I turned to find a dark-haired, thin girl with an elfin face winking at me. “
” she whispered. “Perfect.”
It wasn’t the reaction I’d expected. I thought the other girls would wait until the closing bell rang, then accost me outside the gates on my way home, thrashing me for deceiving them and trying to ingratiate myself with our new teacher. But what I glimpsed on this girl’s face was not resentment or anger. It was . . . admiration.
After Mademoiselle assigned our homework and the girls filed out, I tried to slip past her at her desk. I’d almost made it to the door when she said, “Mademoiselle. A moment, please.”
I paused, glancing warily over my shoulder. The others pushed past me; one of them sneered, “Maria the mouse is about to get her first gold star.”
Then I stood alone before the teacher’s pensive gaze. The late-afternoon sunlight filtering through the dusty classroom window burnished her unkempt chignon with copper. Her skin was rosy, with a slight down on her cheeks. My knees weakened. I didn’t understand why I’d said what I had, but I had the disquieting impression that she did.
“Maria?” she asked. “Is that your name?”
“Yes. Maria Magdalene.” I forced my voice out of my knotted throat. “Maria Magdalene Dietrich. But I prefer . . . everyone in my family calls me Marlene. Or Lena, for short.”
“A lovely name. You speak French very well, Marlene. Did you learn it here?” Before I could answer, she laughed. “But of course you did not. Those others:
C’est terrible, combien peu ils savent
. You shouldn’t be in this class. You’re too advanced.”
“Please, Mademoiselle.” I clutched my satchel to my chest. “If the headmistress finds out, she’ll . . .”
“What?” She cocked her head. “What will she do? It’s not a crime to know how to speak another language. You’ll waste your time here. Wouldn’t you prefer to use this hour for something you can actually learn?”
“No.” I was close to tears. “I . . . like learning French.”
“I see. Well. Then we must see what we can arrange. Your secret is safe with me, but I cannot vouch for the others. They might be negligent, but they’re not deaf.”
Mademoiselle. I’ll study very hard, you’ll see. I only wish to please you.” It was my standard avowal, accompanied by an awkward curtsy, as Mutti had taught me during social calls after church, when we went to visit other respectable widows for hot cocoa and strudel. Then I started for the door, desperate to escape her amused eyes and my own impulsiveness.
As I left I heard her say, “Marlene. You do please. You please me very much.”
skipped my way back home, swinging my satchel. Crossing the tram tracks and dodging street vendors shouting out the price of their wares, I ignored everything, hearing her voice in my head, like an echo in the soft rustle of the leafy linden trees lining the avenue.
You do please. You please me very much
By the time I dashed up the cracked marble stairs to our flat at 13 Tauentzienstrasse, I was humming under my breath. Tossing my satchel onto the foyer table, I went into the immaculate parlor where my sister, Liesel, sat hunched over her books. She glanced up, looking as weary as if she’d been sitting there for weeks.
here?” I asked, reaching to the plate at her side for a leftover slice of strudel.
The disapproving line between her eyebrows deepened. “You mustn’t call Mutti that, it’s so disrespectful. And you know on Thursdays she works late at the von Losch residence. She’ll be here by seven. Lena, use a plate. You’re dropping crumbs everywhere. The maid just left.”
I bent to the threadbare carpet, dabbing up the few crumbs. “There.” I licked my finger.
“Better use the broom.”
I went into the kitchen for the broom, even if it was futile. Mutti would re-sweep the carpet after we went to bed, and scrub and wax the floors, too. She never tired of cleaning, despite the fact that she spent the entire day doing it for someone else. She had let four maids go in as many months, declaring them slovenly. It happened with such frequency that Liesel and I didn’t even bother anymore to learn the current maid’s name.
Still humming under my breath, I moved to the small fortepiano and violin in the living room. Both were in dire need of expert tuning; the violin had been my eighth-year birthday present, purchased by Oma, my grandmother, after my private music tutor had assured Mutti I had talent. The tutor had gone the way of the governesses yet I persisted in my practice. I loved music; it was one of the few interests I shared with Mutti, who was an accomplished pianist herself after years of her own childhood lessons. We often played together after supper and I now found waiting on the piano lid an étude by Bach that she’d left for me to rehearse.
As I settled the violin onto my shoulder, Liesel said, “You’re in a rare good humor. Did something special happen at school today?”
“Nothing.” I adjusted the tuning pegs, hoping to spare the worn strings. Mutti would buy new strings for my birthday, but December was still months away. I had to make the best of these until then. As I passed my bow over the bridge, releasing a discordant twang, Liesel added, “Nothing? You never come home with a smile. And you never start practicing as soon as you do.
must have happened.”
I began to play the sonata, wincing as the worn strings resisted my efforts. “I have a new French teacher. Her name is Mademoiselle Bréguand.”
Liesel went quiet, watching me play. I glanced only once or twice at the sheet music; despite the poor quality of my strings, I had memorized this piece. Mutti would be proud.
Then my sister said, “You’re happy because of a new teacher? I don’t believe you. I know how much you detest that school. You’re always saying the teachers are frumps and the girls chatter about nothing. Tell me this instant. Did you meet a boy?”
My bow slipped, ruining my concentration. I stared at her in disbe
lief before I snorted. “Where would I meet a boy? All my classmates are girls.”
“You still walk home every day. You see boys on the street, don’t you?” She sounded serious. And somewhat angry, too.
“The only boys I see are the ones who kick stray dogs and run around like hooligans. I don’t meet them. I avoid them.”
I wanted to add that if she was so interested in boys, she should go out more. But I bit back my retort because it wasn’t Liesel’s fault that she had weak lungs or phlegmatic bronchial tubes or whatever the current illness might be. Mutti fussed constantly over her, which, in my opinion, did her no good; but the fact remained that my sister was “delicate” and she embraced the condition wholeheartedly.
“I only ask because I’m concerned,” she said. “I don’t mean to pry, but you’ll be thirteen this year, almost a woman, and boys—well, they tend to . . .”
Her voice faded into uncomfortable silence. Retuning the violin, I pondered what she’d said, and more important, what she had not.
Liesel’s experience with the opposite sex mirrored my own. Since our father’s demise, the only man we saw with regularity was our uncle Willi in Berlin. But I didn’t point this out because Liesel and I weren’t close, not as siblings should be. We weren’t antagonistic, either—we shared a bedroom and rarely quarreled—but our temperaments were so disparate that even Mutti remarked on it. Physically, the differences were apparent. Liesel was thin and wan, like a faded lamp under a shade, with our father’s sallow complexion. I’d inherited Mutti’s plump build, her blue eyes, upturned nose, and near-translucent skin that turned as red as a beet if I stayed out in the sun for too long. But our differences ran deeper than that. As I’d grown older, I began to realize that my reticence in public was due to Mutti drilling into me that it was how girls ought to behave. She never had to remind Liesel, to whom it came naturally. Calling attention to herself terrified my sister; it was why she never left home except for our Sunday social calls, trips to the market, and monthly outings to Berlin.
“Are you saying boys might tease me?” I said, with a deliberate lift of
my eyes. She went rigid on her chair, betraying the fact that it was precisely what she was trying to say.
“Do they?” she breathed.
“No. Or at least not that I’ve noticed.” I paused. “Why? Should I—notice, that is?”
“Never.” She was appalled. “If they ever tease you or say something improper, you must ignore them and tell Mutti at once.”
“I will.” I caressed my bow across the strings. “I promise.”
I wasn’t lying. No boy had paid me any mind. But today someone had. And I knew the way she’d made me feel wasn’t something I should admit to.
Your secret is safe with me.
I’d never had a secret before. I intended to keep it.
MUTTI ARRIVED AT PRECISELY FIVE PAST SEVEN
. We’d already cleared the table of Liesel’s study materials and set it with our chipped ceramic dishware, as the Meissen porcelain was reserved for special occasions. I was heating up a pot of
a white-bean potage I’d prepared the day before. Mutti refused to let the maid do any cooking and had put me in charge of our daily supper. I enjoyed cooking and was better at it than Liesel, who always ended up with a scorched sauce or an underdone roast. Much like playing music, I found a soothing orderliness in following a recipe, from mixing specific ingredients just so to create a desired result. Mutti had trained me herself, but as with everything else, she did not trust anyone’s skills but her own, coming directly to the kitchen with her hat and gloves still on to peer into the pot.
“More salt,” she pronounced. “And reduce the flame. Otherwise, it’ll turn to mush.” Turning away, she went to her bedroom. She emerged minutes later in her housedress and apron, her dark blond hair coiled at the nape of her neck. I’d never seen Mutti with her hair loose, not even when she used the washroom; unbound tresses were not something widows showed, it seemed.
“How was school today?” she asked as she directed me to bring the potage to the table.
“Good,” I replied. She nodded. I wondered whether she’d notice if I told her the school had burned to the ground. I didn’t think so. She made the daily inquiry only because it was the polite thing to do. My answer was superfluous.
We ate in silence, idle conversation discouraged at the table. When I wiped my plate with my bread (I had a hearty appetite), she clucked, “Lena, what did I tell you?” I could have recited her litany by heart: “Girls of good breeding don’t sop up their food like peasants. If you want another helping, ask.”
I never asked. If I did, she’d tell me that girls of good breeding didn’t require second helpings. An uncontrolled appetite displayed a lack of suitable refinement.
We washed the plates and put them away in the cupboard. Before Papa died, this was the hour when we always made ourselves scarce so our parents could retire to the living room, where Mutti would play the fortepiano while he smoked his pipe and sipped an evening
. But he was gone, and as we were of suitable age, my sister reclined on the sofa as Mutti oversaw my rendition of the Bach sonata.
As always, I was nervous. Mutti might not be experienced with the violin, but she had an unerring ear and I wanted to prove I was practicing every afternoon as instructed. She was not a disciplinarian in the physical sense; she had slapped me only once. I was ten years old and at dance class, where I refused to partner with a boy whose breath stank of onion. I’d never forgotten how she strode across the floor in full view of the other children and their parents to deliver her humiliating blow, along with a stern: “We never display our feelings in public. It’s rude.” I’d taken pains since then to never incite her again. Though she might spare the proverbial rod, her tongue could be just as lacerating, and she had even less patience for sloth than she did for dirt or rudeness. “
” was her motto: “
something.” We’d learned that idleness was the worst sin of all, one we must avoid at any cost.
I finished the sonata without errors. Mutti leaned back on the bench before the fortepiano. “That was excellent, Lena.” She spoke with an affection she never showed unless I had surpassed her expectations.
Relief filled me. Her praise was so rare, it made me feel as if I’d accomplished a feat.
“You’ve been practicing,” she went on. “It shows. You must continue. It shan’t be long before we must arrange a scholarship audition to the Weimar music conservatory.”
“Yes, Mutti,” I said. The prestigious conservatory in Weimar was her ambition, not mine; she believed my talent could pave the way to a career as a concert soloist and had not solicited my opinion. Girls of good breeding did what their mothers told them to do.
“And you, my dear?” She glanced at Liesel, who had applauded at the end of my performance. “Would you like to play something on the piano for us?”
Apparently, I thought resentfully, my sister’s opinion did matter, for when she demurred, “Forgive me, but I have a headache,” Mutti sighed and closed the lid on the keys. “You must go to bed, then. It’s getting late and we have to rise early tomorrow.”
Earlier than usual? I groaned inside. It meant she had chores we must do before I left for school and she went to work. As I set my violin in its case, I wondered why we kept a maid at all. Between our daily chores and Mutti’s nightly ritual—I could tell she was eager to see us to bed so she could attack the foyer parquet—surely paying a maid was another needless expense.
Then Mutti said, “Before we retire, I have important news.”
I paused in surprise. News?
We waited as she glanced at her chafed hands, which no amount of lotion could relieve, visible proof that Wilhelmina Josephine Felsing, known in the community as the Widow Dietrich, had come down in the world. She still wore her gold wedding band, tight around her swollen knuckle. She fingered it. Something about her gesture made me nervous.
“I am getting married again.”
Liesel sat frozen. Incredulous, I said, “Married? To whom?”
She frowned. As I braced for her retort that children did not question their elders, she replied, “To Herr von Losch. As you know, he is a widower, with no children; after careful consideration, I have decided to accept his proposal.”
“Herr von Losch?” I was aghast. “The man whose house you clean?”
“I do not clean it.” Though she didn’t raise her voice, her tone turned sharp. “I oversee its upkeep. I am his
. His maids do the cleaning and I supervise. Are you quite finished with your questions, Lena?”
I wasn’t. A hundred more clamored in my mind but all I said was, “Yes, Mutti,” and stepped toward my sister, thinking I had just earned my second slap.
“The wedding will take place next year.” Mutti stood, smoothing her hands over her apron. “I’ve asked for sufficient time to prepare and he has granted it. I want to inform your grandmother and Uncle Willi first of course, as they must give their approval and present me at the altar. That is why we must rise extra early tomorrow. I’ve invited them to visit; before they arrive, we’ve much to do if we’re to set this house in order.”
Unless she intended us to switch out the furniture, I couldn’t see what else needed doing. Every Saturday after market we scrubbed the entire flat, addressing each nook and cranny the maid had neglected. And no matter how much we cleaned, anyone could see that, unlike Oma and Uncle Willi, we lived in a rented flat that, while not mean, was hardly luxurious. But I didn’t dare say another word, too shocked by her unexpected news.
She would marry again. Liesel and I would have a new stepfather—a man we did not know, who we’d be expected to respect and obey.
“We’ve not yet decided our living arrangements, but I assume after the wedding, we’ll move to his house in Dessau. I’m going there next week to see if it’s suitable. In the meantime, you are not to say a word to anyone. I don’t want the neighbors gossiping out of turn or advising the landlord that we intend to give notice. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Mutti,” Liesel and I said in unison.
“Good.” She tried to smile, but it was such an infrequent occurrence
for her, it came out as a grimace. “Now, wash your faces and say your prayers.” As we turned to leave, she called out, “Lena, make sure you wash behind your ears.”
Liesel didn’t speak as we took our turns in the cramped washroom, undressed, and slipped into our narrow twin beds. A nightstand separated us; I could have reached across and touched her, but I didn’t, lying on my back to stare up at the ceiling. When I heard Mutti in the foyer, on her knees with her rags and wax, I whispered, “Why would she do this, at her age?”
My sister sighed. “She’s only thirty-eight. It’s not so old. Herr von Losch is also a colonel in the Imperial Grenadiers, as Papa was. He must be an honest man.”
“Thirty-eight seems old enough to me,” I retorted. “And how do we know he’s honest? She supervises his maids. What can she know about him, besides how much starch to use on his shirts?” My voice hardened. “And Dessau is so far away that I’ll have to leave my school.”
“Lena.” Liesel turned to me, her eyes like two pinched holes in the gloom. “You mustn’t try her. She only does what is best for us.”
Somehow, I doubted that. Marrying a stranger and upending our existence didn’t seem like what was best for anyone, save for her and Herr von Losch.
“A woman alone is a terrible thing,” Liesel went on. “You cannot understand, but to be a widow with two daughters to raise—it’s a test of perseverance.” She turned away, pulling her sheet to her chin. Within minutes, she was snoring. Liesel would not protest. Whatever Mutti said or did, she always complied. A parlor here or there: It was all the same to her.
While I had other interests. I had my secret.
With my sheets bunched in my fists, I did not fall asleep for a long time.
trudged through the weekend. Mutti couldn’t help but notice, especially when Liesel whispered, “Stop glowering!” But she refrained from any chastisement, first having us clean the entire apartment, floors and windows included, before she received word that Uncle Willi couldn’t visit. Instead, to my delight, Mutti said we would go see him in Berlin.
I loved Unter den Linden in the city, that sweeping boulevard with its luxurious shopping emporia; here, we visited the Felsing Clock and Watch Company run by Uncle Willi. Delighted to see us, he took us to a
for vanilla cakes and marzipan, and then on to the Café Bauer on the Friedrichstrasse for hot chocolate to go with our cakes. I had an insatiable sweet tooth, and Mutti, for all her rigidity at the table, indulged my vice, as a girl with flesh on her bones proved she came from an upstanding family. I ate my share but also surreptitiously wrapped several marzipans in my handkerchief, pocketing them while Uncle Willi paid the bill, even as my sister eyed me in dismay.
Mutti did not mention her upcoming marriage again, at least not with us, though I assumed at some point she informed Uncle Willi. She didn’t believe in debating her decisions with us, and of course we were in no position to challenge them. But rebelliousness seethed in me. By the following
week, I felt so helpless before this momentous change in my life, I stopped pretending in class and vied openly for Mademoiselle’s attention. I was the first to present my flawless assignments, the first to raise my hand and answer any question she posed, oblivious to the others’ glares when she commended me for my diligence.
“Let Maria be an example,” she told the class, giving me her coveted smile. “She has shown that with the proper attitude and diligence, anyone can learn to speak French.”
As almost everyone suspected I had started out with an advantage they lacked, I didn’t endear myself to my classmates and I didn’t care. I wanted only to endear myself to her. The marzipan I’d taken became little gifts wrapped in scraps of lace, adorned with a single poppy, which I deposited on her desk every day before I left, my eyes downcast as she exclaimed, “How thoughtful of you,” and I murmured, “
Mademoiselle.” That the marzipan was misshapen, soggy from being stored in my pocket, made no difference; it was my gesture of appreciation that mattered.
The very next week when Mutti went to Dessau to determine if the von Losch house would suit as our new residence, which meant she’d return home later than usual, Mademoiselle invited me to a stroll after school. Although I’d promised to go straight home to help Liesel with chores and supper—as predicted, our maid had been sacked—I waited for Mademoiselle outside the gates. She emerged with her satchel stuffed with books and a straw boater on her head.
“Shall we?” she said, and I found myself walking beside her to the boulevard, passing laced-up ladies with parasols and dogs on leashes, gentlemen in bowler hats and gold fob chains slung from vests, and tired governesses with protesting charges in tow. Any of them might know Mutti. Despite its proximity to Berlin, Schöneberg was still a garrison town, where the kaiser barracked his troops. Everyone knew everyone else. I kept my face lowered under my cap, hoping my uniform would hide my identity. To my relief, no one paid us particular mind, the men doffing their hats and the ladies murmuring their
“Let’s have a coffee.” Mademoiselle stopped at a corner café, taking
one of the outdoor marble-topped tables. As I perched opposite her, I realized that in daylight, she was even lovelier than in the classroom, her hazel eyes flecked with green, her lips as pink as the ribbon on her hat. A few stray hairs from her chignon clung to her cheek. I had to clench my hands in my lap to stop myself from reaching over to peel them off her skin.
She ordered. The waiter frowned. “Coffee for the fräulein?”
“How silly of me.” She laughed. “Marlene, would you prefer a chocolate or a lemonade?”
“No, thank you.” I straightened my back. “Coffee is fine.”
I’d never had coffee. Mutti drank tea. Proper ladies only drank tea. Regardless of its popularity, according to Mutti, coffee was a foreign predilection that soured one’s breath.
While we waited to be served, Mademoiselle sighed and removed her boater, running her fingers through her hair, causing more strands to unravel about her face. Then without warning, she said, “Now, you must tell me what troubles you.”
I was startled. “Troubles me? Nothing, Mademoiselle.” Except that I was sitting at a café on the boulevard with her and was afraid someone who knew Mutti might see us.
“Oh, no.” She wagged her finger. “I’ve sufficient experience to know when a student tries to hide something.”
“Yes.” She nodded as the waiter set two cups of dark liquid before us, pouring cream from the pitcher into hers. She extended the pitcher. “It’s less bitter this way. Add sugar, too.” As I did, she went on, “Before I took this job, I worked as a governess in a large house. I had three charges. I know when a girl fears saying what’s on her mind.”
For a paralyzing instant, I thought she’d seen through me, my gifts of marzipan and eagerness for attention betraying me. But then I realized she didn’t appear angry or upset, her candid gaze on me as she said, “I promise whatever you tell me will stay between us.”
“Like . . . a secret?” I asked. I sipped the coffee; it tasted like sweet molten velvet.
“If you like.
Un secret entre nous
My French might be good, but not good enough to describe my surge of emotion. I didn’t want to impose on her astonishing informality, exciting as it was. No one had ever asked me what I felt, much less my innermost thoughts. As if Mutti were at my side, a sibilant shadow in my ear, I heard:
We never display our feelings in public.
I tore my gaze from her face. “It really is nothing,” I muttered.
Her hand slid over mine. Her fingers were so warm, the sensation speared all the way to my toes. “Please. I want to help you, if I can.”
Was I so transparent? Or was it rather that until this moment, no one had ever deigned to see me as someone with feelings worth noting?
“It’s . . . my mother. She’s getting married again.”
“Is that all? But I had the impression it must be something else.”
“Such as?” I was terrified to learn what else she’d divined, prepared to be told that my affection, while flattering, was hardly appropriate between a student and her teacher.
Instead she said, “I thought there might be a boy you liked, perhaps, or some female trouble?”
I understood the euphemism and shook my head. I’d had my first menses three months before.
“Then it is only your mother getting married? But why? Do you not like her suitor?”
“I don’t know him. My father died when I was six. Until now, it’s just been Mutti, my sister, and me. . . .” Before I knew it, I was telling her all about Herr von Losch and the threatening move to Dessau, about my talent for the violin and Mutti’s ambition to see me enter the conservatory. I curbed my outburst only when I was about to confess that she also troubled me, as I had no words to explain what she made me feel, but that I didn’t want to go anywhere that might take me away from her.
She sipped her coffee. “I understand how frightening change can be,” she said at length. “
how I understand. But it doesn’t seem as if you’ve reason to worry. Your mother sounds like a decent woman who has found a husband to care for her. You want her to be happy, don’t you? And
Dessau isn’t too far away. I’m certain there are schools there, with other girls.” She paused. “You’ve not made friends here. That dark-haired girl who sits next to you in class, Hilde—she’s always trying to catch your attention but you behave as if she’s invisible.”
She did? I hadn’t noticed. But then I never noticed anything at school these days, except Mademoiselle.
“A girl like you,” she said, “so pretty and intelligent. Why, you could have a hundred friends if you wanted them. But you never try, do you?”
The conversation had taken an awkward turn. I didn’t want to talk about my lack of friends; I wanted—
She pointed at my cup. “You should drink that before it gets cold.”
As I gulped down the now-lukewarm coffee, she regarded me with that disconcerting blend of sincerity and insight that made me think she could read my deepest thoughts.
“Have you ever been to a
?” she abruptly asked.
“A what?” Her question was so disconcerting, I had no idea what she meant.
“A moving picture. A flicker.”
I knew the term but had never seen one. Mutti did not approve.
“You haven’t. Marvelous! There’s one near here. It’s not grand like those in Berlin, but not as expensive, either. It’s in a cabaret hall, where they show flickers on weekday evenings. Would you like to go? I adore the cinema. I believe it’s the new entertainment for our modern age, which will make even the theater seem passé. They’re showing
Der Untergang der
Do you know what it’s about?”
I nodded. “The
sank after striking an iceberg.” I remembered because when it happened two years earlier, every newspaper boy had blared the headline for days on end.
“Indeed. Many lives were lost. This moving picture is supposed to be amazing. Continental-Kunstfilm in Berlin produced it. They’re building entire studios dedicated to the cinema.” She gestured to the waiter for the check. “If we hurry, we can make the first showing.”
I knew I should decline, thank her for the coffee and advice, and make
my way back before it was too late. Liesel would worry. She’d tell Mutti I’d been late coming home, and—
Mademoiselle ladled coins onto the platter with the bill and stood, holding out her hand. “Quickly, Marlene. Before we miss the Stadtbahn!”
How could I resist? Grasping her hand, I let Mademoiselle Bréguand lead me astray.
I couldn’t help it, my sorrow and amazement overcoming me as the grainy images on the warped sheet hung on the wall as a screen came to life, depicting a titan lost at sea, the forlorn men waiting on deck while the orchestra played and the tragic women huddled in lifeboats, witnesses to catastrophe. At one point, I even grabbed Mademoiselle’s knee, so overwhelmed that I forgot we were in public, albeit in a darkened hall that stank of beer and stale cigarettes, with others seated around us, their gasps and whispered commentary enhancing the mute display.
Afterward, I was in a daze.
“Wasn’t it sublime?” Mademoiselle’s face was luminous. “I want to be there one day.”
?” I managed to say, trying to shake off the sensation of being stranded on the open sea, watching my loved ones sink under cold black water.
“No, silly. Up there. On the screen. I want to be an actress; it’s why I left Paris to come here. I’m working as a teacher until I earn enough to rent a room in Berlin. It’s terribly expensive to live in Berlin these days—it’s the fastest city in the world and I need extra money to pay for my rent and dramatic classes.” She took my hand again as we waited for the overhead Stadtbahn tram. “Now, we both have secrets to keep. I’ve just told you mine.”
I longed to ask her if there was someone she loved or missed, whom she’d left behind in France to pursue her dream. But I couldn’t untangle the words from my mouth, and all too soon we reached the boulevard, where
the new electrical lighting shed a sulfuric glow over the populace as they milled about the beer gardens and cafés.
We hurried toward the shuttered school.
By the gates, she halted. “I live this way,” she said, motioning to a side street that wound between ramshackle older buildings. “But I can accompany you home and explain why you’re late.” Her mischievous smile crinkled her mouth. “We’ll have to say you didn’t finish your assignment in time. It might mean your mother will be displeased.”