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Herr Brugli's bedroom was in the front of his mansion, looking out over the waters of the Lake of Zürich. In the early mornings he would stand in his dressing gown at the window, sipping a cup of milky coffee, while his valet ran his bath. The valet, Markus, was Polish, and had been with Herr Brugli for fifteen years. He knew the exact temperature which Herr Brugli preferred for his bath water; he knew the precise blend of coffee which his employer liked in the morning and the place on the breakfast table where Herr Brugli expected the morning's copy of Die Neue Züricher Zeitung to be awaiting him. Markus knew everything.
Markus knew, too, that Herr Brugli liked Madame Verloren van Thermaat, a Belgian lady who lived two miles away, also on the shores of the lake, also in a mansion. Verloren van Thermaat - what a ridiculous name, he thought. Madame Lost Tomato, that's what I call her!
"Should I marry Madame Thermaat?" Herr Brugli asked him one day, as he brought in the morning tray. "What are your views, Markus? You know me well enough by now. What do you think? Should a widower like myself marry a widow like Madame Thermaat? Do you think that that's what people expect of us?"
Markus laid his tray on the bedside table, exactly where Herr Brugli liked it to be laid. Then he crossed the room to open the curtains, glancing as he did so at his employer's face, reflected in the wardrobe mirror. Markus had to admit to himself that he was frightened. Everything about his job was to his liking. There was very little to do. He was paid handsomely by Herr Brugli, who never counted the bottles in his cellar, ever. He and his wife lived in a small cottage in the grounds, not more than a few paces from the private jetty. They had a small boat, which they liked to sail in the summer. Madame Thermaat might change all that. She had her own staff. She might edge them out.
"I really couldn't say, sir," he said, adding: "Marriage is not always a bed of roses, of course. Some people are happier by themselves."
He saw Herr Brugli smile.
"Anyway, perhaps I anticipate matters rather. Madame Thermaat is an independent person. Her life is very satisfactory at present."
Now Herr Brugli stood before the mirror in his dressing room and adjusted his tie. He was wearing his most comfortable suit, made, like all his suits, in London. Every year he went there for his wardrobe, ordering several suits and pairs of handmade shoes. Nobody made clothes like the English, he thought, which was rather surprising, bearing in mind what a scruffy group of people they were in general - young people in blue jeans with tears in the knees; men in shapeless, shiny jackets with zips in front; women in unflattering trousers and everyone, it seemed, in running shoes! And yet they made those wonderful clothes for other people - tweeds, cords, mohairs, checks, tartans.
This suit was just right for the occasion. It was made of a thick brown tweed, with a double-breasted waistcoat, and would keep him warm if the day turned nasty, although that looked unlikely, he thought; the sky was quite clear and there were signs of spring everywhere. It would be a perfect day.
He ate his breakfast slowly, perusing the columns of the newspaper, noting the obituaries - nobody today, thank God - finally turning to the stock reports. There was satisfactory news there, too. Everything was up on the previous day's trading, which is how it should be.
He laid aside the paper, wiped his mouth on the starched table napkin which Markus had patiently taught the Italian maid to iron in just the right way, and then he got up from the table. There was a short time to wait before the car would be at the door and he would set off. For a moment he was unsure what to do. He could write a letter, or read perhaps - he was half-way through The Magic Mountain, but he was out of sympathy with it for some reason. German literature was so depressing, he felt; so heavy and full of woe. What a bleak vision they have, our neighbours to the north; what a frightful group of people for the most part, terribly greedy. But they eat our chocolates, I suppose.
He went to his bureau and took out his writing case. There was a letter to be written to his cousin in Buenos Aires. She wrote to him once a month, and he always wrote back within three days of receiving her letter. She had nothing to do, of course, and her letters reflected this; but he was dutiful in family matters and since he had been left on his own the burden of correspondence had fallen on him.
"Dear Hetta: What a gorgeous day it is today - a real peach of a day. The lake is still, and there is no movement in the air. Yet spring is here, I can feel it, or almost here, and very soon we shall have blossom in the garden again! Alas, you will slide into autumn, and winter then, but I shall think of you as I sit in the garden."
He paused. She knew about Madame Thermaat, of course, but he did not want her to feel that there was any understanding which did not yet exist. Perhaps just a mention then: "Today I am accompanying Madame Thermaat-I have told you of her, of course-into Zürich. We are going to take a short walk by the river, as it is such a lovely day, and I have one or two matters to attend to. Then we shall come back." He wondered if he should say more, but decided that this was quite enough. Let them speculate in Buenos Aires if they liked.
Markus came in to tell him that the car was ready outside. He got up from his desk and walked into the hall. There was another mirror there, and he looked anxiously at his reflection. The tie needed straightening, but he was sure he was right about the suit - it was exactly what the day required.
"Good-bye Markus," he said. "I shall be back at the usual time."
Markus held the door open for him, and the driver, seeing him emerge, started the engine of the car. They moved out on to the road, into the traffic, and edged their way up the lake to collect Madame Thermaat.
"My dear Madame Thermaat!" "Dear Herr Brugli!"
They beamed at one another.
"Would you like the rug across your knees? There's still a bit of a nip in the air, isn't there?"
She shook her head. "I am perfectly warm," she said.
"I never feel the cold."
"You are so fortunate," he said. "I feel cold in summer." "Thin blood," she said. "You must have thin blood." He laughed. "I shall try to thicken it up. What do you recommend? Do any of those health magazines you read tell you how to do it?"
"Chocolate, Herr Brugli! Lots of chocolate!"
He wagged his finger at her in mock disapproval. They were well on their way to Zürich now, and the large, highpowered car shot past slower vehicles. He asked her what she had been doing, and she described her week. It had, she said, been trying: she had two meetings of the village board, and they had ended in an impasse on each occasion, which was worrying. And then she had had three bridge evenings - three - all of which meant that she had had no time to herself at all.
He nodded sympathetically. He had weeks like that himself.
"And you have your factories too," she said. "You have to worry about them."
"To an extent," he agreed. "But thank heavens for my managers."
The car turned over the Cathedral Bridge and into the heart of the city. At the end of Bahnhof Strasse it pulled in to the side and allowed them both to alight. He got out first and held the door open for his companion.
"Thank you dear Herr Brugli," she said. "Now, where shall we start?"
He wagged his finger at her again.
"You know very well," he scolded. "Sprungli's - as always!"
They crossed the street and walked a few yards to a large glass door on which in ornate gold script the name Sprungli's was embossed. They walked past a man sitting on a bench, whose eyes fixed on them as they went past. He muttered something, and held out a hand, but neither heard nor saw him.
The counters in Sprungli's were laden with bank upon bank of chocolates. He paused before a tray of Belgian chocolates, and examined them carefully. Her eye was caught by a cake, which was topped by a small icing-sugar swan.
"Such skilful sculpting," she said. "It seems a pity to eat such an exquisite little work of art."
"A trifle overdone," he said. "I prefer a simpler approach."
"Perhaps, Herr Brugli," she conceded. "Simplicity is certainly an ideal in life."
They passed upstairs, where the waitress recognised them and led them immediately to a table in the corner. She was particularly attentive to Herr Brugli, who addressed her as Maria and asked after her mother.
"Ah," said the waitress. "She takes great pleasure in everything still. When the weather gets a bit better she will ride up to Rapperswill on the steamer to visit her sister."
"Marvellous!" said Herr Brugli, and turning to Madame Thermaat: "Eighty one, almost eighty two! A positive advertisement for a healthy life, is she not Maria?"
"And schnapps," said the waitress. "She drinks two glasses of schnapps each day. One before breakfast, and one before retiring to bed."
"There you are!" exclaimed Herr Brugli. "You see!"
They looked at the menu, which was quite unnecessary, as Herr Brugli never chose anything new, and expected Madame Thermaat to do the same.
"I think we shall have our usual again," he said to the waitress.
A few minutes later Maria brought them their coffee, served in tall glasses with whipped cream floating on the top. Then a plate of cakes arrived, and they each chose two. Maria returned, topped up the coffee, and cleared the uneaten cakes away.
"Take those back to your mother," said Herr Brugli. "Charge them to us."
Maria beamed. "She loves cakes," she said. "She can't resist them!"
There were few people of note in Sprungli's. There were several tables of tourists - a party of Italians and a table of sober, intimidated Americans. Herr Brugli's gaze passed over these tables quickly.
"Nobody's in this morning," he began to say. "I don't see a soul . . ."
He stopped. Yes, there was somebody, and he leaned over the table to whisper to Madame Thermaat.
"Would you credit it?" he said, his voice barely audible. "There she is, that Zolger woman with her young friend. In broad daylight . . ."
Madame Thermaat followed his gaze.
"Eating cakes!" she exclaimed. "Look, she's feeding him one with her fingers!"
Herr Brugli's eyes narrowed.
"He's young enough to be her son," he whispered. "Just look at that! Just look at the way she's gazing at him."
"Eyes for nothing else," said Madame Thermaat. "Positively devouring him, in public."
They looked away, thrilled by their discovery. It was wonderful to see something as shocking as that; it added a spice to the day to see a late middle-aged Zürich matron - a prominent banker's wife - with her young lover in public, in a chocolate shop! It really was astonishingly good fortune, and cheered them both up immensely.
They arose from their table. He left fifty francs for Maria, tucked under a plate, as he always did. Then, eyes averted from the Zolger table, they made their way out of Sprungli's and into the street. It was even warmer now, and the city was bathed in clear spring sunlight; somewhere, over by the river, a clock chimed.
It was gallery time now, so they crossed the river again, skirted round the cheap shops which ruined the arcade, and began to climb up one of the narrow streets that wound their way up the hill to the Church of St John. She walked beside him, on the inside, and when they negotiated a tricky corner she took his arm-which he liked-but released it later once the danger had passed.
The Gallery Fischer was discreet. It had a display window, but only a small one, and this tended to contain some item from Herr Fischer's private collection, and would have nothing to do with what was inside. The door was always locked, but there was a small bell, which said simply Fischer and this, if rung, produced a small, stout man wearing round wire-rimmed glasses.
"So, Herr Brugli . . . and Madame Verloren van . . . van . . ."
"Thermaat," said Herr Brugli. "Herr Fischer, you are well, I hope?"
"Everybody in Switzerland has a cold at the moment," said Herr Fischer. "But I do not. So I am grateful."
"There are so many germs around these days," said Madame Thermaat. "You just can't avoid them. They are everywhere."
Herr Fischer nodded his head sagely.
"I have great faith in Vitamin C," he said. "I take Vitamin C every day, without fail."
They followed him into a small room behind the gallery. A young woman in an elegant black trouser suit came out from an office, shook hands solemnly, and then went off to a cupboard in the corner of the office.
"Here it is, then," said Herr Fischer. "It is, I hope, what you had in mind."
He handed the figurine to Herr Brugli, who took it in both hands and held it up in front of him. For a few moments there was silence. Herr Brugli moved the figurine backwards and forwards, the better to examine it in the light.
"Yes," he said quietly. "This is absolutely perfect."
Herr Fischer showed his relief. "There are so few of them left," he said. "At least there are so few of them in this condition."
Herr Brugli passed the small porcelain figure to Madame Thermaat, who took it gingerly and examined it closely. "Such lovely colours," she said. "So true to life."
She passed it back to Herr Fischer, who looked expectantly at Herr Brugli.
"I shall take it," said Herr Brugli. "If you could ask your man . . ."
"We shall deliver it with pleasure," said Herr Fischer.
Madame Thermaat had moved to the other side of the room and was looking at a small bronze on a table.
"Do you have anything - some small bibelot - which Madame Thermaat might like?" Herr Brugli asked Herr Fischer. "Some little present . . .?"
Herr Fischer looked thoughtful. "There is something," he said. "A small egg, after Fabergé I'm afraid, not by him. But exquisite nonetheless."
Herr Brugli smiled. "She would like that." Then, very quietly: "The price?"
Herr Fischer lowered his voice. He did not like talking about money, even with somebody like Herr Brugli. "Eight thousand francs," he said. "An absolute snip. If it were by Fabergé himself, then, well . . ."
Herr Brugli was eager to save the proprietor embarrassment. "Perfectly reasonable," he said. "Could we see if she likes it?"
"Leave it up to me," Herr Fischer assured him. "I shall fetch it immediately." It was a minute egg, fashioned out of silver, with gold lining and encrustation. The top, which could be pushed back, was lined within with mother-ofpearl, and the rest of the egg's interior was covered with jet.
"I believe that this might have been a pill box," said Herr Fischer. "It is, I believe, of French manufacture."
Madame Thermaat took the tiny egg in her hands and peered at it intensely.
"So delightful," she said. "So modest. I'll take it please."
Herr Fischer seemed momentarily perplexed. He looked at Herr Brugli, who waved a hand in the direction of the egg.
"I should like to buy that for Madame Thermaat," he said. "Put it in my account."
"But I intended to buy it myself," protested Madame Thermaat. "You're far too kind to me."
"It is a little present that I already planned to buy you," said Herr Brugli. "You were not meant to buy it yourself."
Herr Fischer brushed aside Madame Thermaat's objections and took the egg from her.
"I shall wrap it in gold foil," he said. "Afterwards, you may press the gold foil down on some special object and gild it."
Madame Thermaat's eye alighted on a small painting on one of the walls. A haloed figure appeared to be floating several feet above the ground, surrounded by admiring bystanders and several surprised animals.
"That is most intriguing," she said to Herr Fischer. "What is it?"
Herr Fischer took the painting down. "Joseph of Copertino. A remarkable figure. He levitated on over seventy occasions and flew quite considerable distances on others. That, I believe, is why he is the patron saint of air travellers."
"A charming painting," she said.
"Late seventeenth century, Florentine," he said, lowering his voice even further. "Remarkable value at nineteen thousand francs."
"Would Herr Brugli like it?" asked Madame Thermaat.
"He would love it," Herr Fischer whispered. "Between ourselves, I gather that he is just the slightest bit frightened of travelling by air. This painting will undoubtedly reassure him."
Madame Thermaat inclined her head slightly. "Will you send me the bill?" she said to Herr Fischer. "Madame Verloren van Thermaat."
"Of course," said Herr Fischer. "And Herr Brugli - is he to know about this?"
Madame Thermaat took the painting from Herr Fischer and handed it to Herr Brugli.
"A little gift from me," she said. "To thank you for all your kindness."
They left Herr Fischer's shop, each carrying the present which the other had bought. It had turned slightly colder now, although the sun was still shining brilliantly, and Herr Brugli turned up the collar of his coat. Madame Thermaat took his arm again, and together they made their way down the narrow streets, back towards the river.
They passed a coffee bar, popular with students, and the smell of freshly ground coffee wafted out to them.
"I could do with a coffee," said Herr Brugli. "What about you? Could you do with one too?"
Madame Thermaat could, and so they entered the coffee bar, both feeling a little bit excited at the prospect of a new place with new, younger people. Zürich had changed over the previous few years, and you were never quite sure whom you might meet. Parts of it were Bohemian now; parts were even dangerous. There were foreigners-Eastern Europeans and others-exotica, thought Herr Brugli.
They found a small table near the bar and a waitress came to serve them. She had black fish-net tights and looked somewhat dishevelled. She was wearing a cheap perfume that made Madame Thermaat wrinkle her nose.
Herr Brugli smiled, conspiratorially. "This is rather different, is it not?"
Madame Thermaat looked about her. "What do these people do?" she said to him, her voice lowered. "Do you think they actually study?"
Herr Brugli shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps," he said. "They study at night - perhaps."
Their coffee arrived. It was piping hot and very strong.
"So welcome," said Herr Brugli. "In whatever surroundings."
He looked at his watch, and saw that it was almost lunchtime. For a moment he was thoughtful; then he called the waitress across and whispered something to her. She muttered something, and returned later with a bottle of champagne, which Herr Brugli inspected. Then he nodded and said something further to the waitress. She appeared surprised, but smiled after a moment and disappeared behind the bar.
"You're conspiring Herr Brugli!" scolded Madame Thermaat. "You're planning some mischief!"
A few minutes later the waitress returned, accompanied by a man in an apron. He was carrying two magnums of champagne. He put the champagne down on the bar and then, to Madame Thermaat's astonishment, clapped his hands loudly. The conversation died down. People looked up from the tables; a woman laid down her cigarette; a young man, who was in the process of getting up from his chair, sat down again.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," said the man. "I am happy to announce that each table may, if it wishes, have a magnum of champagne, by courtesy of one of our honoured guests." He paused, his hand stretched out to introduce Herr Brugli.
One of the students laughed.
"Good for the honoured guest! Where's the champagne?" The waitress opened the first bottle and gave it to a table of young men. Then others received their bottle and the wine was poured.
"Herr Brugli!" said Madame Thermaat. "Such a generous gesture! I think the students approve."
They did. Glasses were raised from all quarters of the restaurant, and Herr Brugli and Madame Thermaat acknowledged the toasts. Herr Brugli himself had two large glasses of champagne and felt immediately exhilarated by the flinty wine.
"This really is proving to be a marvellous day," he said expansively. "Such wonderful weather-such wonderful company!"
Madame Thermaat smiled demurely, raising her glass to her lips. She was more moderate in her consumption of champagne, but enjoyed it nonetheless. The students, of course, drank quickly. Soon the first magnums had been exhausted, but a sign from Herr Brugli to the waitress produced more. The man in the apron looked dubious, but money changed hands and he went away smiling.
Glasses refreshed, the students' conversation became more animated. At one table there was uproarious laughter; at another an earnest debate; at yet another, a student broke into a snatch of song.
A couple of students now got up and came over to the table at which Herr Brugli and Madame Thermaat were sitting. They were a boy and a girl - in their late teens or very early twenties by the look of them - dressed in the uniform of the student quarter, jeans and black jackets.
"May we join you?" asked the boy. "It was very kind of you to give us all champagne."
Herr Brugli rose to his feet, drawing up a chair for the girl.
"Of course," he said. "It has been a very great pleasure to see you all enjoying yourselves so much. It's just like The Student Prince . . ."
The students looked blank.
"Surely you remember the film," interjected Madame Thermaat. "Mario Lanza was the prince. He was a student too . . ."
The girl shook her head. "An old film?" she asked.
Madame Thermaat laughed. "Goodness!" she said. "I suppose we forget just how old we are. Yes, I suppose it was an old film."
"We saw Casablanca last week," offered the boy. "It was terribly good. It was at a festival of historic films."
Herr Brugli glanced at Madame Thermaat. "It was a truly great film," he said. "It was probably the best film ever made. I saw it shortly after it came out," adding: "Although I was terribly young at the time, just a boy really."
There was a short silence. Herr Brugli reached for his bottle of champagne and filled up the students' glasses.
"Tell us all about yourselves," he said. "Tell us what you study. Tell us where you live. Tell us which professors are worth listening to and which are not."
They walked out of the coffee house together. The boy took Madame Thermaat's arm, for which she was grateful, after four glasses of champagne - and Herr Brugli took the girl's.
"Our place is just a minute or two away," said the boy. "It's nothing much, I'm afraid."
"What does one need in life?" asked Herr Brugli. "A glass of wine, a book, a bough, and thou? Is that not what Omar Khyham says."
"Yes," said the boy, hesitantly. "Maybe . . ."
They passed a bookshop and then followed a narrow lane that led back up the hill. Then there was an alley, with several bicycles propped against the walls, and graffiti daubed on the plaster. There was a slightly dank smell in the air, an odour of cats, thought Herr Brugli.
"Here we are," said the girl. "This door to the right." They entered the doorway. There was a cramped hall, and a set of narrow stone stairs which the boy bounded up. From a landing above, he called down to them: "Door's open! Up you come!"
Madame Thermaat went in first, followed by the girl. Then Herr Brugli entered, stooping under the squat lintel of the door, holding his felt hat in one hand and his parcel in the other.
There were only two rooms. One was a living room, neatly kept, but sparsely furnished. There were several large cushions on the floor and a sofa covered with a tartan rug. There were posters on the wall - a picture of a man's head, a travel poster from Greece, an Italian railway timetable. There were books stacked in a narrow bookcase and several forming a pile on the floor itself.
The door into the other room was open, and they could see a large mattress on the floor. Beside the mattress there was a vase of dried flowers and more books. Herr Brugli averted his gaze, guilty, awed.
"You see," said the boy. "This is how we live. This is our place."
"It's charming," said Madame Thermaat. "And look, you can see the Cathedral down there!"
Herr Brugli joined her at the window and they looked down at the roof tops of the city, falling away below them towards the river. It was a view of the city they were unused to; it could even have been another town.
"I would like to live somewhere like this," said Herr Brugli quietly. "Away from everything. Just by oneself. Imagine it."
Madame Thermaat closed her eyes. "You wouldn't have to worry about anything," she murmured. "No staff troubles. No bridge parties. No telephone."
"It would be blissful," said Herr Brugli. "Heaven."
The girl had switched some music on - it was jazz, a saxophonist - while the boy ground coffee.
"Listen," said Herr Brugli, raising a finger in the air. "You know what that is, don't you. As time goes by! Casablanca!"
He turned to Madame Thermaat.
"We should dance," he said. "Would you care to?"
"I should love to," she replied.
The boy set the mugs of coffee down on a low table. Then he went to the girl and took her by the hand. They danced too, next to Herr Brugli and Madame Thermaat. As time goes by finished, and now it was Afternoon in Paris; only Herr Brugli knew what that was, but they all danced again. Then the boy danced with Madame Thermaat, and Herr Brugli danced with the girl.
Now the boy opened a bottle of wine - cheap Swiss wine from up the lake - but Herr Brugli said it was the most delicious wine he had had for many years. Madame Thermaat agreed, and drank two glasses.
Suddenly Herr Brugli looked at his watch.
"Look at the time!" he said. "Almost five o'clock!"
"We must be on our way," said Madame Thermaat. "I have so much to do."
"And so do I," said Herr Brugli.
The boy said he was sorry they were leaving. They could have had dinner in the flat.
"Some other day," said Herr Brugli. "And perhaps some time you would both join us for dinner in our houses."
"That would be very nice," said the girl.
Herr Brugli looked at the girl. She was enchanting; kind, loving, wonderful - just wonderful. And the boy was so courteous too; nothing had really changed in Switzerland, nothing. He leant over to Madame Thermaat and whispered in her ear. She listened gravely, and then nodded enthusiastically.
"We are so grateful to you for your kindness," said Herr Brugli. "Asking us home, and arranging this impromptu little dance - everything. We have presents for you, and you must accept them."
He passed the painting to the boy, and Madame Thermaat pressed the jewelled egg, in its wrapping of gold foil, into the girl's hands.
The boy looked embarrassed as he took the paper off the parcel. He was silent as he studied the painting, holding it tenderly.
"It's marvellous," he said. "It looks just like an original. It's so realistic."
Herr Brugli laughed. "But it is the original," he said. "It's Florentine."
"And the egg is French, not Russian," said Madame Thermaat. "Not, alas, by Fabergé, but by a follower."
The girl looked mutely at the boy, who raised an eyebrow.
"These presents are too generous," he said. "It's very kind of you, but we can't . . . we can't accept them."
"But of course you can," said Herr Brugli. "You would offend us if you did not. Is that not so, Madame Thermaat?"
"Yes," she said. "It is."
They bade farewell at the end of the lane. The boy and girl stood there for a few minutes, his arm around her waist, and at the bottom of the hill Herr Brugli turned round to wave to them. Then a taxi stopped and he ushered Madame Thermaat into it.
He gave the address, and they set off in the direction of the lake road.
"What a wonderful day it has been," sighed Herr Brugli. "We've done so very much."
"Our days in Zürich are always wonderful," said Madame Thermaat.
"Next Wednesday then," said Herr Brugli. "Shall we go out again?"
"Yes," said Madame Thermaat. "That would be very suitable. Perhaps we'll have good weather again."
The taxi drove on. They sat in silence now, each separately reflecting on the satisfaction of the day. They passed blocks of flats, garages, parks. Now they were going through an industrial area, and there were factories. One stood out - with a great blue sign in neon light, illuminated against the dark of the sky - Brugli's Chocolate. But Herr Brugli did not see it, as his eyes were closed in sheer pleasure and from the fatigue that comes from a busy day. Madame Thermaat was looking out over the lake. She would play bridge later that night, with her friends, as usual. She had had a bad hand of cards last time, but she was completely confident that tonight they would be decidedly better.
Copyright © 1995 by Alexander McCall Smith. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.