This gave me a chance to restore us to business. "And the littler ones?" I asked. "Do you need help with them?"
In the dimness I glimpsed her bewilderment; it was as if she was begging for eclipse.
"No, no, we go to New York so Rudi is close to the big library. Here is for him so little. The committee, it is so very kind that they give us this house, and also they make possible the work at the College, but now it is enough, Rudi must go to New York."
A gargantuan crash overhead: a drizzle of plaster dust landed on my sleeve.
"Forgive me," Frau Mitwisser said. "Better I go upstairs now, nicht wahr?"
She hurried out and left me alone in the dark. I buttoned up my coat; the interview, it seemed, was over. I had understood almost nothing. If they didn't want a nanny here, what did they want? And if they had had a tutor, what had become of the tutor? Had they paid too little to keep him? On an angry impulse I switched on a lamp; the pale bulb cast a stingy yellow stain on a threadbare rug. From the condition of the sofa and an armchair, much abused, I gathered that "the big ones" were accustomed to assaulting the furniture downstairs as well as upstairs or else what I was seeing was thrift-shop impoverishment. A woolen shawl covered a battered little side-table, and propped on it, in a flower embossed heavy silver frame that contradicted all its surroundings, was a photographhand-tinted, gravely posed, redolent of some incomprehensible foreignnessof a dark-haired young woman in a high collar seated next to a very large plant. The plant's leaves were spear-shaped, serrated, and painted what must once have been a natural enough green, faded to the color of mud. The plant grew out of a great stone urn, on which the face and wings of a cherub were carved in relief.
I turned off the lamp and headed for the front door with its stained-glass inset, and was almost at the sidewalk (by now it was fully night) when I heard someone call, "Fräulein! You there! Come back!"
The dark figure of a giant stood in the unlit doorway. Those alien syllables "Fräulein," yelled into the street like thatput me off. Already I disliked the foreignness of this house: Elsa Mitwisser's difficult and resentful English, the elitist solemnity of the silver frame and its photo, the makeshift hand-me-down sitting room. These were refugees; everything about them was bound to be makeshift, provisional, resentful. I would have gone home then and there, if there had been a home to go to, but it was clear that my cousin Bertram was no longer happy to have me. I was a sort of refugee myself.
(Some weeks later, when I dared to say this to Anneliese"I sometimes feel like a refugee myself"she shot me a look of purest contempt.) Like a dog that has been whistled for, I followed him back into the house.
"Now we have light," he said, in a voice so authoritatively godlike that it might just as well have boomed "Let there be light" at the beginning of the world. He fingered the lamp. Once again the faint yellow stain appeared on the rug and seeped through the room. "To dispel the blackness, yes? Our circumstances have also been black. They are not so easeful. You have already seen my nervous Elsa. So that is why she leaves it to me to finish the talk."
He was as far from resembling an Englishman as I could imagine. In spite of the readier flow of language (a hundred times readier than his wife's), he was Germandensely, irrevocably German. My letter was in his hands: very large hands, with big flattened thumbs and coarse nails, strangely humped and striatedmore a machinist's hands than a scholar's. In the niggardly light (twenty-five watts, I speculated) he seemed less gargantuan than the immense form in the doorway that had called me back from the street. But I was conscious of a force, of a man accustomed to dictating his conditions.
This is the complete text of chapter 1, pages 1-5 of Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick. Copyright 2004 by Cynthia Ozick. All rights reserved.
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