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1950s Archive

Viennese Memoir

The Betrothal

Originally Published April 1959

The entire apartment smelled of Eau de Cologne—Kölnisch Wasser—a clearly decipherable message to one and all that Frau Hofrat had awakened with a headache and that she must on no account be disturbed by those members of her family who were to blame for it. The accusation inherent in the scent gave Herr Hofrat a strong feeling of guilt. Having achieved an impressive station in life, as well as a title and a most impressive goatee, he could no longer be said ever to slink, but his silent departure from the apartment, on a wave of Joseph Maria Farina's famous concoction, closely resembled sneaking. The boys left for school the moment the first whiff seeped under their door, and the maid found work that had to be done in the most remote room. The Hofrätin's daughter and the cook, Lutz and Teckla—both newly betrothed and ecstatic brides-to-be—remained happily unaware of the ominous scent around them. In the dream world they had entered, no practical considerations mattered: the endless details of engagements and weddings, the planning of festivities, and the making of complicated menus played no part. Frau Hofrat had to carry the full burden of the Verlobung, Hochzeis, and Ausstattung—the betrothal, wedding, and all-important trousseau—without Teckla's help. Teckla had her mind and her elbows deep in her own hope chest. Added to these difficulties was the constant danger that the maid would succumb to the epidemic and announce a third engagement.

The letter formally requesting Lutz' hand had come and been answered; the proposal call had been made and returned; cards had been left with all relatives and connections, and Lutz wore on her left hand the simple gold band that would be transferred to her right hand by the bridegroom after being blessed at the altar. Frau Hofrat would glady have dispensed with this charming sentimentality in exchange for a diamond engagement ring. Teckla's hand was similarly adorned, thus making it almost impossible for her to knead dough and bake bread. Nothing could be undertaken that might impair the yellow luster of her ring.

Herr Geheimrat, the father of the bridegroom, had met with Herr Hofrat for the formal arrangements and clarification of the bride's expectations. These coincided so closely with Herr Geheimrat's rough calculations of the position that he expressed himself satisfied. Since young Doktor Karl was an only son, and Herr Geheimrat a successful advocate, there was no need of further discussions regarding the bridegroom's outlook. Not mentioned but tacitly taken into account was the fact, also, that Frau Geheimrat was a geborene Schmidt—that is, nee Schmidt—which meant solid assets in industry. All things considered, it might be said to be, on both sides, perhaps not an absolutely brilliant but cetrainly a satisfactory match. To make matters even pleasanter, the Geheimrat and the Hofrat and their wives allowed their negotiations to be influenced by the charming circumstance that, in addition to all other good reasons for the match, the young couple also seemed to love each other.

Just so with Teckla. Her ad in the marriage column had swelled the Hofrätins mail, and for days she oversalted the roast and undersalted the soup. Most disgraceful of all, her last Torte was sitzengeblieben—it didn't rise at all—probably the final factor that induced Frau Hofrat's headache. After several rendezvous in various Kaffees and at street corners, Teckla had quickly made her choice. The happy man was a veterinarian with a small practice in the provinces. Teckla's savings would enable him to buy several pieces of equipment, with these, he felt, he could so far increase his earnings that he would be able to afford a wife. Teckla was perfectly happy because her ability to cook had never been mentioned, and she felt loved for herself alone—and for the enlarged practice that would result from the union. The fact that she would be able to set before the man of her choice a meal fit for a Viennese Hofrat was a surprise she was keeping in store for her future husband.

Frau Hofrat, having escaped to a darkened room, could not escape her fate. She and she alone would have to give the Verlobungs Feste, send out the notices, buy the Ausstattung. Lutz was so young that they had been letting down the hems of her skirts rather than hemming sheets for her. Frau Hofrat had to plan the Tees for the young, the Après Soupers for the adults, the large reception, and the dinners. She moaned in agony; Herr and Frau Geheimrat would attend most of the functions, so she could not resort to preparing one menu and repeating it over and over again. She would have to produce her entire repertoire, including the Kalbsrüeken, saddle of veal, and the cold lemon trout, all in two months, with the help of a cook who had lost her touch. The children wanted to marry in June, and, naturally, so did Teckla. And there sat Frau Geheimrat with a confirmed old maid cook in the kitchen, and convention required of her only a dinner party for four—four!—Lutz, Karl, the Geheimrat, and Frau Geheimrat, a charming, intimate little dinner, with a well-roasted and garnished Poularde, a compote, and a pudding. Frau Hofrat, on the other hand, might have to stage as many as eighteen functions, haunted all the while by the ominous prospect of another small daughter growing up.

At the moment of Frau Hofrat's deepest despair, the maid announced Herr Gumprecht, the veterinarian. He was calling, if not actually to ask Frau Hofrat for the hand of Teckla, at least to wait upon her with his respects. The Hofrätin arose. She steadied herself with a whispered noblesse oblige: She felt far more animosity toward the man who was going to take her cook away from her than she felt toward Doktor Karl, who was marrying her daughter. In spite of her headache, Herr Gumprecht won her over immediately with a stiff bunch of flowers and the sincere admiration he expressed for her favorite poodle.

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