If I was impressed, it was fair to say that Bonnie was overawed. Schloss Eisenberg surpassed all our expectations. It was indeed a fairytale castle. I will always remember my first view of it.

The big Mercedes limo had met us at the nondescript railway station in a nondescript town, historic, I suppose, in a smug solid way, with its heavy architecture and geometrical streets strictly North-South or East-West, looking like a mini Adelaide.

The liveried chauffeur, impressive in black and silver (The Germans seem to excel at uniforms), loaded both us and our luggage with rapid Teutonic efficiency. He was taciturn, whether due to training or natural moroseness I do not know. He was polite but strictly monosyllabic, frustrating even Bonnie’s natural garrulity. His driving was fast and efficient as he whisked us out of town and took a mountain road.

The road took a sharp bend through a narrow gorge or cutting and widened into what was obviously a tourist look-out. The driver stopped the car, opened the sliding glass window panel and said “Schloss Eisenberg, meine Herrschaften.” He left his seat and came round to open the door. With solemn formality, he assisted Bonnie to alight. He glanced enquiringly at me, and then stood back. The view was magnificent.

The castle was perched on a craggy rise. Small turrets, with their conical roofs, seemed to sprout enthusiastically from the main building seemingly at whim, though I suppose each had been placed with care to overlook an approach. But there was a lightness and delicacy at odds with my stereotype of castles. There was none of the heavy squareness of Norman architecture. There were no dark colours either, Schloss Eisenberg was built of honey-coloured stone.

We were looking across a small valley. From the castle on the heights, the ground fell away in vineyard terraces to the Rhine below. Little steamships chuffed their way near to the banks. Towards the centre of the river strings of heavily laden barges towed by diesel tugs profaned the idyllic scene. Although the castle looked near enough to touch, the driver said “Zwanzig Minuten, noch” and gestured towards the car.

‘Another twenty minutes,’ interpreted Bonnie unnecessarily.

I just gave her a look.

Despite Bonnie’s fears, our reception at the castle was delightfully informal. Her Ladyship, the Baroness von Eisenberg, proved to be a tiny birdlike woman with short cut silver hair, dressed in faded jeans and a huge white hand knitted sweater. She was wearing two pairs of spectacles, one perched on her nose and the other on a cord round her neck. ‘My computer glasses,’ she said, as she noticed me notice.

‘Welcome to my home. You must be Bonnie, Charlie has told me a lot about you. Come in my dear, and make yourself at home. Perhaps you would like coffee, or maybe tea?’ She tugged a bell pull. A very pretty girl in a maid’s uniform appeared within seconds. ‘Please come and sit down, you must be tired from all that travelling.

‘I will have your luggage taken to your rooms. I was uncertain as to your relationship, so I have given you adjoining rooms. I hope that is satisfactory.’ She certainly was a very modern little lady.

‘And you, Charlie. Are you the big brown bear you pretend to be? Tell me Bonnie, is he, as you young people say, for real?’ Gisela chuckled with a mischievous glint in her eye ‘Now, do you want to freshen up, or can I induce you, Charlie, to look at my computer room?’

Before we knew it, we had finished our cup of tea, Bonnie had been handed over to the obliging young maid, and I had been whisked off to look at Her Ladyship’s computer set-up. Gisela von Eisenberg was certainly a determined and competent woman. Anyone capable of organising Bonnie on their first encounter is a force to be reckoned with.

Gisela’s computer room was a treasure trove; she had all the latest hardware: scanners, laser printers, and a really powerful PC which made my little notebook look like a toy. I said as much to the Baroness.

‘No, No,’ she said, ‘Considering that you are on the road and have to use your digital phone, you are doing remarkably well’

‘Somehow, from our correspondence,’ I said unthinkingly, ‘I thought you would be a lot younger.’

‘I had guessed that tact was not your strong point, young Charlie,’ she said dryly, ‘But at least such honesty is refreshing. Perhaps my daughter, Magda, will be more in accord with your mental picture of the von Eisenbergs. You will meet her at dinner. She too is a computer buff, but I have hidden you from her. A mother must have some privileges!’

In my room, I found a connecting door. I knocked and Bonnie opened it.

‘So? What do you think? Does the castle live up to your expectations?’ I suspected that Bonnie was a little overawed. ‘How does this conform to your middle-class notions of the aristocracy. Come on, Bonnie, admit you are relishing every moment of it. When we first came in, I thought you were going to curtsy.’

Bonnie was obviously overwhelmed, but after all, she was supposed to be a People person and a professional at that. I felt I owed it to her to cure her of her colonial snobbery.

“Hey,’ I said, ‘It’s not like you to be spooked by a blue blood. Snap out of it.’ I felt that making her angry would act as an antidote. I was right. It made her flaming mad at me!

‘Charlie Quinn,’ she snapped, ‘That is quite enough of that. Look around you. Do you realise where you are? This room we are in was old before Australia was discovered. Some of the paintings on the wall of this room were painted in the fifteenth century. That sword on the wall was carried by a Teutonic knight in Poland and that one by a crusader for all I know. Have you no sense of history?’

‘Okay, Okay,’ I said. ‘So you are grateful I brought you here. I’m more concerned with how you are going to cope with the present generation. I can’t have you genuflecting in all directions. It is embarrassing. Gisela, our hostess, is a very tough little cookie, and she’ll walk all over you if you let her. I like her, and I think she likes me. Don’t forget, your job is to get me home in one piece.’

‘But Charlie,’ Bonnie was dubious, ‘She is at least twenty-five years older than you. I’m not even jealous any more.”

‘Her daughter Magda isn’t. We will meet her at dinner. I have a feeling that I may be set up…’ I lapsed into silence, leaving a suddenly thoughtful Bonnie.

I’m glad that Bonnie had insisted that we dress for dinner. Wearing her long black evening gown, with simple silver jewellery (I was glad to see her wearing my Swiss watch) she was not outclassed by the other ladies. I was wearing my idea of formal dress: Black trousers and a black shirt with a Nehru collar, relieved by a simple quartz crystal pendant. I had trimmed my beard for the occasion.

There were ten of us at dinner that night: Myself and Bonnie; Baroness Gisela and a Herr Schnabel, the local Buergermeister, Magda Schimmelbusch, Gisela’s daughter, and her cousin, Graf Fritz von Strohheim; The von Hochburgers, Karl and Eva; and Herr und Frau Waldemar Tischbein.

I hastily checked, in a whisper, with Bonnie ‘Are they really Mr and Mrs Table leg’ My German was still rudimentary.

“Yes,’ she whispered back, ‘But what do you think they would make of the English name “Ramsbottom”?’

Now Magda really was my idea of a Rhine Maiden. Much taller than her mother, perhaps even taller than Bonnie, she was a classic Nordic blonde. I was hard put to it to decide how her blondeness differs from Bonnie’s. Perhaps ‘Flaxen’ would best describe it. Bonnie’s was somehow an Australian blondeness; a light hair colour bleached by the harsh Aussie sun. Magda’s? Now that was an intrinsic blondeness, bred through generations of temperate climes. Her eyes, too, were a bluer blue than Bonnie’s, an egg-shell blue, a term that always had me foxed until once I saw the egg of a hedge sparrow. I hastily averted my gaze but sneaked a second look. They were blue all right.

Somehow I became aware that all present knew me for an Australian millionaire. Nothing was said, of course, but the dynamics of the dinner reflected the change. Somehow, under Gisela’s direction, the focus altered. Graf Fritz was very attentive to Bonnie. Gisela chatted with the Buergermeister, the von Hochburgers with the Tischbeins, and I found myself alone with the blue-eyed blondeness of Magda.

I quickly came to know that an unhappy marriage had ended with the tragic death of her husband, killed in a road accident while absconding with a best friend. I didn’t really want to know. This was sensed, and the subject changed swiftly to my travels. On becoming aware of my heretical views on the subject a smooth transition was made to computers.

This seemed to me a fairly safe subject, yet before I knew it I was launched into conducting a mini-lecture, my enthusiasm running away with my discretion. Really, Magda seemed a very intelligent woman who listened attentively to everything I had to say. I was quite carried away. Suddenly I realised that I was alone with Magda. The others had withdrawn somewhere.

As I said to Bonnie later, I could hardly walk out on the daughter of our hostess. I had to stay and talk.

It was just Good Manners.

 

© Copyright H.St V.Beechey August 1996

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Name *