Clouds upon the Horizon
Professor Dr Dr (honoris causa
) Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld came from a distinguished family about whom little is known, other than they had existed, as von Igelfelds, for a very long time. The obscurity of their early history in no way detracted from the family’s distinction; in fact, if anything, it added to it. Anybody can find their way into the history books by doing something egregiously unpleasant: starting a local war, stealing the land and property of others, being particularly vindictive towards neighbours: all of these are well-understood routes to fame and can lead to immense distinction, titles and honorifics. Most people who today are dukes or earls are there because of descent from markedly successful psychopaths. Their ancestors were simply higher achievers than other people’s when it came to deceit, expropriation, selfishness and murder. That none of these attributes tends to be recorded in family coats of arms is testimony to the ability of people to brush over or even completely ignore the saliences of the inconvenient past. Coats of arms of armigerous families therefore tend to embody devices that bear no relation to the means by which those families’ prominence was achieved. There are no bloody knives in heraldry, no hidden trapdoors, no evicted widows, impoverished orphans or betrayed allies. There are, by contrast, plenty of suns, moons, ears of corn and ships. If weapons are depicted, these are stylised and, most importantly, innocently sheathed.
The von Igelfeld coat of arms was somewhat unusual, relating directly to the family name, in its English translation meaning hedgehog-field.
The hedgehog is not a common heraldic device; indeed, it is thought to occur in no other coat of arms, German or otherwise. It is not generally considered a noble creature. Lions and unicorns abound in heraldry because they evoke, respectively, courage and charm; the modest hedgehog, by contrast, bears few associations. It scurries about the undergrowth on business of its own devising. It threatens nobody other than small grubs and insects, for whom there is anyway generally little sympathy. The hedgehog is the hero of no legend, no myth, apart from the Grimms’ Der Hase und der Igel
. There is no patron saint to protect it, no Greek hero to represent it, no Hindu god whose transformational form was the hedgehog. Why the von Igelfeld family should have adopted the hedgehog, both as their name and their symbol, is uncertain. Family tradition has it that they once lived in close proximity to a field renowned for its hedgehogs, but where this field was, and even if it ever existed, is far from clear. Another tradition has it that a von Igelfeld ancestor was once saved by a hedgehog, although how a hedgehog might be capable of saving anybody has never been revealed. Dogs have saved the lives of humans, as have horses, and even, famously, Capitoline geese, but never have hedgehogs been credited with such service to humanity.
The family came originally from the eastern reaches of Bavaria. The earliest von Igelfeld is recorded in the sixteenth century, in a reference in a land charter granted to a Heinrich von Igelfeld, proprietor of a farm endowed with two active mills. After that, there are one hundred and twenty years of obscurity until another document records the transfer of a substantial estate to one Franz-Josef, Graf von Igelfeld, now apparently a count. Some eighty years later, the title seems to have disappeared, and the next von Igelfeld to be mentioned in any records has been demoted from Graf
. That particular von Igelfeld owned a substantial parcel of land and may be assumed to have been wealthy, but a brief letter that has survived in the family archives refers to the problems that resulted from his having forgotten where his land was. And that difficulty dictated the fate of the family over the following years: there was an estate – somewhere – but nobody knew where it was.
By the time of Moritz-Maria’s father, Hans-Christian von Igelfeld, the family had largely lost contact with the land, although at least one uncle continued to be landed.
Although the name was suggestive of nobility, the family was now firmly rooted in the professional classes in and around Munich. Hans-Christian had been a professor of surgery who wrote a widely used book on the correction of incorrectly set fractures; his brother, Casper, was an engineer who specialised in designing Archimedes’ screws. The family had lived in modest comfort and would have disappeared into the haute bourgeoisie
were it not for the unusual name and for their continuing sense that they belonged elsewhere, in rather grander circumstances than those in which they currently found themselves.
After completing his school education at a classical gymnasium, Moritz-Maria had enrolled at the University of Heidelberg. It was there that he had first met Florianus Prinzel, the son of a banker, a member of a student Korps
, and highly popular for his sporting prowess. The relationship between the two young men was very much that of one between scholar-poet and hero-athlete. Von Igelfeld admired Prinzel for his social ease and his bravery, but realised that he could never match his social and sporting achievements. At that stage, of course, he had had no idea that years later they would find themselves as close colleagues in the Institute of Romance Philology at the University of Regensburg. Nor would he have imagined that the friendship between them would be very much resented by another colleague, Professor Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer, who came from an obscure potato-growing family, and who had long been envious of von Igelfeld’s noble background. Of course, Unterholzer had other reasons to bear a grudge against von Igelfeld; these centred on von Igelfeld’s role in the events that had led to the amputation of three of Unterholzer’s dachshund’s four legs, requiring the dog thereafter to get around on a set of wheels strapped to his abdomen. That incident was still occasionally referred to by Unterholzer, in an unmistakably resentful tone, prompting von Igelfeld to change the subject as quickly as possible whenever any mention was made of dachshunds.
After Heidelberg, von Igelfeld had undertaken doctoral studies at the University of Regensburg. The subject of his doctoral thesis was linguistic shifts in the Portuguese language, with special reference to their occurrence in Brazil and Goa. This was to be the foundation, many years later, of his classic work Portuguese Irregular Verbs
, a book of twelve hundred pages, hailed by many in the field as being the most significant single contribution to Romance linguistics in over a century. It was on the strength of that great work that von Igelfeld had received his call to a Chair in Regensburg. There he found himself working in the Institute of Romance Philology alongside Prinzel, who had returned from further studies in Paris, and Unterholzer, who had recently completed his Habilitationsschrift
in Berlin. Von Igelfeld had heard from his contacts at the Freie Universität
there that Unterholzer’s work was ‘not really first-rate’ and that most of it was ‘barely publishable’. This was tittle-tattle of the sort that abounds in academia, but von Igelfeld had noted it carefully and was once heard referring to ‘our dear, weaker colleague, Herr Unterholzer’. That condescending description had been made in private, but its effect had lingered, and Unterholzer’s work was thereafter rarely considered to be in the same league as that of von Igelfeld or Prinzel. Academia is full of injustices, and this was certainly one of them.
There were only three professors in the Institute of Romance Philology, although there were eleven untenured researchers, nine of them allocated to the three full professors, each of whom had three. The remaining two, both named Müller, were independent, having completed the necessary qualifications needed to take up a Chair if one were to become vacant. These two both eyed the Chairs occupied by von Igelfeld, Prinzel and Unterholzer with ill-concealed fascination, and secretly would have been delighted if illness or other disaster were to strike one, or preferably two, members of the professoriate. Occasionally this led to muttered remarks passing between the two of them, such as: ‘Did you think Professor von Igelfeld looked slightly pale this morning, Herr Müller? I do hope he’s not sickening for anything serious – or even fatal.’ And that might bring forth the response, ‘You’re right, Herr Müller. He would be sorely missed were he to succumb to some dreadful illness – which heaven forfend, of course.’ And then each would silently reflect on just what would happen were von Igelfeld’s Chair to be vacated. Prinzel and Unterholzer would both apply for it, they imagined, and this would mean that the resulting vacancy further down the academic food chain would become available to one of them. Each Müller, of course, thought of himself as being markedly superior to the other, but both knew that the resulting competition would not be a pretty one. ‘They’d sell their own grandmother for a Chair’ is a common criticism of those on the lower rungs of the academic ladder, which raises questions as to just why so few German professors appear to have extant grandmothers. That is a complex issue, though, and one for another time.
The other senior member of the Institute’s staff was the Librarian, Herr Huber. Although not a professor, Herr Huber was allowed to use the Senior Coffee Room along with von Igelfeld, Prinzel and Unterholzer; the Müllers were not afforded the same privilege, but were permitted to keep the milk for their coffee in the Senior Coffee Room fridge, as long as they did not attempt to make their coffee there. For that purpose they had a small kitchen at the end of a corridor, although this did not have anywhere to sit.
Herr Huber was in his early forties and was a graduate of the University of Munich. He also had a diploma in Advanced Cataloguing from the Library School of the University of Hamburg, and a further diploma in Linguistic Librarianship from the University of Amsterdam. Until recently he had been a bachelor, but was now married to a woman from Bonn. They lived just outside town in a very small house on the edge of a forest – ‘Rather like Hansel and Gretel,’ observed von
Igelfeld, much to the amusement of his colleagues.
Herr Huber had an aunt who was a permanent resident of a nursing home in Regensburg. He visited her every day, taking her pastries he bought for her from the Konditorei
near the Institute. On these visits the aunt would regale her nephew with items of news from the nursing home, and these in due course would be passed on by Herr Huber during the Institute’s morning coffee break.
‘My aunt has a new pill,’ he announced one morning.
‘Until now she has been prescribed five pills a day: three to be taken in the morning, and two in the evening. Or is it the other way round? I think it may be two in the morning and three in the evening.’
‘I think you told us last week,’ said Professor Dr Unterholzer, with a deliberately heavy stress on last week
, ‘that it was two in the morning and four in the evening.’
Herr Huber, though, was adamant. ‘No, she certainly does not
have six pills a day. I know that, Herr Professor, because there is a man in a room near hers who indeed has six pills. He is a certain Herr Lucien Hoffmeyer, a tall man of cheerful disposition, who was the Secretary of a bank in Munich until his retirement. He told me himself that he takes six pills a day, and I don’t think that is a detail that somebody who was the Secretary of a bank would get wrong.’
‘These pills that your aunt takes,’ asked Professor Dr Dr Prinzel. ‘What are they for?’
‘One is for blood pressure,’ said Herr Huber. ‘My aunt does not have excessive blood pressure, which is what many people suffer from these days. Her blood pressure is too low, if anything. You need a certain amount of blood pressure to ensure that the blood reaches the head. If your blood pressure is too low, the blood itself does not circulate effectively. It stays in the lower regions of the body and does not reach the head in the quantities needed. That, I believe, is what her red pill does. Another pill is to ensure that she does not retain too much water in her system, and another one, I believe, deals with heart arrhythmia, from which she suffered even before her admission to the nursing home.’
‘I see,’ said von Igelfeld.
‘Yes,’ said Herr Huber. ‘Mind you, sometimes there are other things to think about in the nursing home, apart from pills and such matters. Last week, for example, one of the fire sprinklers was triggered and soaked several chairs – quite badly, in fact. One of them was ruined, I believe. It was a false alarm, of course, but I take the view that it is far better for these things to be activated too often rather than not work at all when a real fire comes along.’
Herr Huber was assisted in his duties as Librarian by three colleagues: the newly appointed Dr Hilda Schreiber-Ziegler, a large and rather brassy woman who was his deputy; Herr Markus Herring, a man in his early thirties who was a keen marathon-runner; and Dr Jorge Martensen, who was Danish on his father’s side and German on his mother’s. Dr Martensen had a doctorate in semiotics, the science of signs and symbols, and was the author of a pamphlet on the sign language of Cistercian monks, of which the Library now possessed seven copies.
When first she had been appointed, Dr Schreiber-Ziegler had assumed that as Deputy Librarian she would be entitled to use the Institute’s Senior Coffee Room. On her first day in the Institute she had followed Herr Huber into those precincts, only to be greeted with sudden and complete silence. Consumed with embarrassment, Herr Huber had rapidly engaged her in a long conversation about nursing homes, while his three colleagues buried their noses in the morning papers.
It was von Igelfeld who took it upon himself to take the Librarian aside and remind him of the rules of access that had always been applied to the Senior Coffee Room.
‘There has never been any doubt,’ he said, ‘but that use of the Senior Coffee Room is reserved for the holders of full Chairs, Herr Huber, and, as a special concession, full
librarians. You are a full librarian, and of course nobody would dispute your
right to take coffee with us. But Dr Schreiber-Ziegler is, as you of all people must know, a deputy
librarian, which is clearly not
the same thing as a full librarian.’
Herr Huber protested that he had not invited his deputy to accompany him. ‘She just got up and followed me into the Senior Coffee Room,’ he said. ‘As you know, Herr Professor, I am not a radical of any stripe. I would never challenge this sort of convention.’
‘I very much appreciate that, Herr Huber,’ said von Igelfeld, with the air of a judge obliged to uphold an onerous law. ‘It is certainly the case that you do not have a reputation for radicalism. And yet, you will appreciate why it is that we must hold you responsible for your deputy.’
Herr Huber looked miserable. ‘I shall not find it easy to talk to her about this,’ he said. ‘It will be very hard to tell her that she cannot join us for coffee – especially when she said to me how much she enjoyed this morning’s coffee break, even if nobody spoke to her.’
Copyright © 2021 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.