“How was it, tell me, Liebchen!” Mary bursts into my room, dying to start her cross-examination. “Have you got engaged? Show me your ring! Have a heart, Liebchen! Don’t keep me on tenterhooks!”
“Yes and no, Mary. Well, if you must know, yes, but just unofficially. We’ll wait until Leo has finished his studies.”
“Poor darlings! How sad! Don’t despair, Liebchen! Love is in the lap of the gods. Not to forget, Liebchen, your father is waiting for you in his study. Better hurry up! And, there’s still something you must know. Zika was snooping around the house and tried to find out when you’d be home. Of course I didn’t tell! You’re an engaged young lady, so better mind your step! I warn you, Liebchen! That boy is really nuts about you and will try his best to get you! He even came here to talk to your father. Heaven knows what about! Don’t worry, Liebchen, there wasn’t a fight. Your father handled him with kid gloves and even treated him to his best cognac! Now better run, I’ll tell you the details later.”
With an uneasy feeling that this heart-to-heart talk with my father might be tough, I knock on his door, hoping he’s gone or has some more urgent matter than my breeding to tackle.
I question the intonation of his voice: concerned but not angry. I take my courage in both hands and enter the lion’s den. He puts his ever-burning cigarette on an ashtray and stands up to greet me.
“I wish you a Happy New Year, Irene, equally successful in your studies as in your personal life. Nothing succeeds like success, as you’ll learn one day, so I hope.”
“I wish the same to you, Daddy,” I wait in vain to be hugged.
“Sit down, young lady. There’s something pressing to discuss. During your absence, Mr. Zika called me for an interview. He informed me you two were in love and asked me to give him your hand in marriage. It was quite a surprise and, why denying it, a shock. Shouldn’t I have heard such noteworthy news from your mouth, Irene, rather than from a stranger’s? I expected you had more confidence in me and in my judgement and would discuss something as important with me first. Wait, I haven’t finished!” He lights one cigarette on the other and takes a greedy puff at it. The spiral of smoke blown through his nose is drawn back into his mouth and hauled to the bottom of his lungs. In stony silence, I wait for his wrath to fall upon me. He glares at the wall above. His nicotine-stained fingers reach for another cigarette and light it from the stub.
“Talking to me was a decent thing to do. A father should be in touch with his daughter’s feelings. In fact, I knew Zika’s father rather well. He was a man of substance and a trusted client of my bank. I deeply regretted his premature and tragic death. I thanked the young man for his honesty. Well, someone else might raise objections to the way he’s earning his living, and providing by it for his mother, as far as I know. You are well aware I respect anyone who turns an honest penny without counting on others to be supported. I’d always prefer his sort to a brat born with a silver spoon in his mouth and wallowing in chic sea-side resorts!” My father stresses suggestively and his nose turns up in distaste.
“I assured Mr. Zika I respect his feelings and would find him satisfactory as my future son-in-law under certain conditions. I invited him to come back later and discuss the matter with a College diploma in his pocket. In that case I’d give his proposal my careful consideration and we would agree on future steps to be taken. We settled upon the College of Engineering which is quite acceptable to both of us, even if I’d prefer my future son-in-law to be a banker. Well, that’s a job one must be born for, a calling, I might even say, Mr. Zika doesn’t seem to be that kind of man,” my father’s lips curl with a bitter smile and the smoke of his cigarette curls up in a question mark.
“So, that’s nearly all I had on my heart and let’s consider the subject closed for the time being. I haven’t finished yet, Irene, stay seated! I had supposed you were friends with Mr. Mulstein, a very talented and decent young man. Now I want to hear from you how to understand this riddle! I can’t believe my daughter could nourish expectations in both of these young men and let them compete for her favours! “My father’s slate-grey eyes watch me more in sorrow than in anger.
“Don’t take me wrong, Daddy! I wouldn’t even dream of getting married! I can’t help it if Milan doesn’t understand! He never mentioned marriage to ME! I’m sorry that he upset you. I’ll have a word with him. My first interest is my studies. I am not too sure if I’d like to marry at all. I might become a banker like you, one day!” I promise cunningly. “Don’t worry about the boys, Daddy, we’re just having fun and ...”
“Some fun! The young man loves you! He’ll get hurt!” My father’s face turns livid.
“I won’t allow you to use him as a pastime, Irene! There’s nothing as cruel and wicked as taking love for granted. Taking all and giving nothing back! Hell is a joke compared to this kind of agony!” He crushes the burning cigarette in his fist and a whiff of singeing flesh pinches my nostrils.
“I tell you once and for all, Irene! If you don’t love Zika really stop seeing him! Do you read me, Irene? I don’t know enough about your relationship with Mr. Mulstein to be a judge. Though I’m sure Milan loves you! And I’m quite an expert in such matters! That’s all. You can go now,” he dismisses me with an imperious gesture and gets absorbed in the files on his desk.
Backing out of his study, I know I have got into a horrid mess.