He reached Innsbruck at dusk, sent his bags up to a hotel and walked into town. In the sunset the Emperor Maximilian knelt in prayer above his bronze mourners; a quartet of Jesuit novices paced and read in the university garden. The marble souvenirs of old sieges, marriages, anniversaries, faded quickly when the sun was down, and he had erbsen-suppe with würstchen cut up in it, drank four helles of Pilsener and refused a formidable dessert known as “kaiser-schmarren.”
Despite the overhanging mountains Switzerland was far away, Nicole was far away. Walking in the garden later when it was quite dark he thought about her with detachment, loving her for her best self. He remembered once when the grass was damp and she came to him on hurried feet, her thin slippers drenched with dew. She stood upon his shoes nestling close and held up her face, showing it as a book open at a page.
“Think how you love me,” she whispered. “I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember. Somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am to-night.”
But Dick had come away for his soul’s sake, and he began thinking about that. He had lost himself — he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year. Once he had cut through things, solving the most complicated equations as the simplest problems of his simplest patients. Between the time he found Nicole flowering under a stone on the Zurichsee and the moment of his meeting with Rosemary the spear had been blunted.
Watching his father’s struggles in poor parishes had wedded a desire for money to an essentially unacquisitive nature. It was not a healthy necessity for security — he had never felt more sure of himself, more thoroughly his own man, than at the time of his marriage to Nicole. Yet he had been swallowed up like a gigolo, and somehow permitted his arsenal to be locked up in the Warren safety-deposit vaults.
“There should have been a settlement in the Continental style; but it isn’t over yet. I’ve wasted eight years teaching the rich the ABC’s of human decency, but I’m not done. I’ve got too many unplayed trumps in my hand.”
He loitered among the fallow rose bushes and the beds of damp sweet indistinguishable fern. It was warm for October but cool enough to wear a heavy tweed coat buttoned by a little elastic tape at the neck. A figure detached itself from the black shape of a tree and he knew it was the woman whom he had passed in the lobby coming out. He was in love with every pretty woman he saw now, their forms at a distance, their shadows on a wall.
Her back was toward him as she faced the lights of the town. He scratched a match that she must have heard, but she remained motionless.
— Was it an invitation? Or an indication of obliviousness? He had long been outside of the world of simple desires and their fulfillments, and he was inept and uncertain. For all he knew there might be some code among the wanderers of obscure spas by which they found each other quickly.
— Perhaps the next gesture was his. Strange children should smile at each other and say, “Let’s play.”
He moved closer, the shadow moved sideways. Possibly he would be snubbed like the scapegrace drummers he had heard of in youth. His heart beat loud in contact with the unprobed, undissected, unanalyzed, unaccounted for. Suddenly he turned away, and, as he did, the girl, too, broke the black frieze she made with the foliage, rounded a bench at a moderate but determined pace and took the path back to the hotel.
With a guide and two other men, Dick started up the Birkkarspitze next morning. It was a fine feeling once they were above the cowbells of the highest pastures — Dick looked forward to the night in the shack, enjoying his own fatigue, enjoying the captaincy of the guide, feeling a delight in his own anonymity. But at mid-day the weather changed to black sleet and hail and mountain thunder. Dick and one of the other climbers wanted to go on but the guide refused. Regretfully they struggled back to Innsbruck to start again to-morrow.
After dinner and a bottle of heavy local wine in the deserted dining-room, he felt excited, without knowing why, until he began thinking of the garden. He had passed the girl in the lobby before supper and this time she had looked at him and approved of him, but it kept worrying him: Why? When I could have had a good share of the pretty women of my time for the asking, why start that now? With a wraith, with a fragment of my desire? Why?
His imagination pushed ahead — the old asceticism, the actual unfamiliarity, triumphed: God, I might as well go back to the Riviera and sleep with Janice Caricamento or the Wilburhazy girl. To belittle all these years with something cheap and easy?
He was still excited, though, and he turned from the veranda and went up to his room to think. Being alone in body and spirit begets loneliness, and loneliness begets more loneliness.
Upstairs he walked around thinking of the matter and laying out his climbing clothes advantageously on the faint heater; he again encountered Nicole’s telegram, still unopened, with which diurnally she accompanied his itinerary. He had delayed opening it before supper — perhaps because of the garden. It was a cablegram from Buffalo, forwarded through Zurich.
“Your father died peacefully tonight. HOLMES.”
He felt a sharp wince at the shock, a gathering of the forces of resistance; then it rolled up through his loins and stomach and throat.
He read the message again. He sat down on the bed, breathing and staring; thinking first the old selfish child’s thought that comes with the death of a parent, how will it affect me now that this earliest and strongest of protections is gone?
The atavism passed and he walked the room still, stopping from time to time to look at the telegram. Holmes was formally his father’s curate but actually, and for a decade, rector of the church. How did he die? Of old age — he was seventy-five. He had lived a long time.
Dick felt sad that he had died alone — he had survived his wife, and his brothers and sisters; there were cousins in Virginia but they were poor and not able to come North, and Holmes had had to sign the telegram. Dick loved his father — again and again he referred judgments to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick’s mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.
In the summer father and son walked downtown together to have their shoes shined — Dick in his starched duck sailor suit, his father always in beautifully cut clerical clothes — and the father was very proud of his handsome little boy. He told Dick all he knew about life, not much but most of it true, simple things, matters of behavior that came within his clergyman’s range. “Once in a strange town when I was first ordained, I went into a crowded room and was confused as to who was my hostess. Several people I knew came toward me, but I disregarded them because I had seen a gray- haired woman sitting by a window far across the room. I went over to her and introduced myself. After that I made many friends in that town.”
His father had done that from a good heart — his father had been sure of what he was, with a deep pride of the two proud widows who had raised him to believe that nothing could be superior to “good instincts,” honor, courtesy, and courage.
The father always considered that his wife’s small fortune belonged to his son, and in college and in medical school sent him a check for all of it four times a year. He was one of those about whom it was said with smug finality in the gilded age: “very much the gentleman, but not much get-up-and-go about him.”
. . . Dick sent down for a newspaper. Still pacing to and from the telegram open on his bureau, he chose a ship to go to America. Then he put in a call for Nicole in Zurich, remembering so many things as he waited, and wishing he had always been as good as he had intended to be.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50