As a young woman, fit and sturdy with apple red cheeks, the baroness had become quite famous after a fashion for having climbed Mont Blanc with her new husband.
She returned, flushed, wildly happy, and completely uncertain as to what all the fuss was about. “We were merely out for a long walk,” she said, smiling, white teeth dazzling, delirious really, as anyone could plainly see.
Was she safe? Was she afraid? Oh darlings, she laughed. “Of course I was. We had guides with us. When we tired, we stopped. When the rocks fell from the cliffs, we ducked. It was cold, certainly. But I am Viennese. What is a little ice to me?”
Yes, it was true that the guides had carried her in places. She’d lost her ability to speak. She’d had difficulty breathing. Her husband, worried for her safety, had wanted to turn around twice. No, she’d shook her head violently. Absolutely not. And trudged ahead toward the Rochers-Rouge.
It was worth it, she whispered to him later, laying in bed after the physician visited. Her eyes wide and imploring. To stand on top of the world and look down at the white blankets of snow and glaciers covering the Alps, it was as close to sailing the oceans amongst their white capped waves as she’d ever get.
There were still hints of the younger woman she was. Clues left in her face, mostly around her eyes, which twinkled, and her cheeks, which remained flushed as the day she came down the mountain. Kissed by the ascent, her husband said. Her middle, though, once so small and narrow had widened with the birth of her four sons. And her breasts drooped, almost covering her rib cage. Yet, trussed and supported with whalebone corsets and fine silk gowns, the baroness remained an elegant, distinctive-looking woman.
Her husband, equally rounded and softened by age and inactivity, doted on his wife, just as he had when he first met her all those years ago. Tall and dashing in his youth, he had just returned from his second ascent of Eiger. His cheeks were wind-whipped, his lips chapped, and his nose burnt and pealing. She later confided in her mother that she had never seen a more attractive man.
In their youth, they had met sitting next to one another at a long table, in candlelight, amidst pheasant, potatoes and over-anxious servers placing more food on her plate, interrupting the conversation. Never mind, he stuttered when he spoke to her, his eyes dashed wildly about the room, looking for a safe place to rest, anywhere, really, that wasn’t on her powdered, white, plump décolletage. As he choked out his tale of climbing the mighty Ogre, she had developed vivid images of the two of them outdoors, upon skis, sailing through the trees along the slopes. How fetching they would look together, she thought happily. His upper lip broke out in a beaded line of sweat as he glanced at her, uncertain of the fiery look in her eye as he told her about reaching the summit by the west flank. “I think he was quite taken by me,” she said to her mother. The two were certain of a match.
Then he disappeared for a year.
She begged her mother to intercede. “Ask my father where he is. Where has he gone. Please.”
“It’s not to be, pet,” her mother said, not looking up from her papers. “He’s gone. If he wanted you to know, he would have said.”
“But father will know.”
“I will not bother him with this. Now stop. Find another.” Her tone flat and final. She raised her hand, hearing her daughter’s intake of breath to start the appeal once again. Ending it.
For a year, she attended concerts, walked along the Danube at night, flirted briefly with a colonel from Berlin. For a year, she lay in bed, imagining where he was – stuck to the side of a glacier with an ice ax in his hand, hiking the Matterhorn, perhaps, or swept along in an avalanche somewhere. The images begetting dreams that were like fevers, raising her pulse, dampening the sheets as she slept.
A year of fallen leaves, of icy ponds, of budding trees, and blossoming flowers. A year of visiting violinists proudly playing Mozart, some Strauss the father, not nearly enough Strauss the son. Of operettas and salons and coffeehouses.
She sat frequently in Café Figaro right beside the Stephansplatz with her Einspänner coffee, which sat regally atop the silver tray with a small pure, clear glass of Alpine water next to it. Most times, she took a table in the middle of the café, near one of the marble columns, and read the Wiener Zeitung which paired nicely with Die Presse. Sipping slowly, she read the papers cover to cover and when done, she gathered her things and walked home when the weather permitted and took a carriage only reluctantly when it didn’t.
As she rose from the table on a deceptively warm April afternoon, he arrived and stood stiffly in front of her, holding the back of the chair for support.
“Good afternoon, Fräulein,” he said and attempted a weak smile.
“Baron,” she said curtly, belying the fact that her heart beat too quickly and her head began to spin. He’d lost most of his hair. His upper lip was no longer besieged by sweat but a small, black mustache instead. He remained lean, and strong, and fit, she saw. His clothes draped over his frame, not tugging or pulling across his body.
“May I join you? Only for a moment, I promise. I do not wish to disturb you.”
“I was just on my way out,” she said and moved gracefully away from the table.
“I will only be a moment,” he repeated.
She stopped and turned back to look at him.
“Well then, come along then.”
Outside on the street, she kept a quick pace. “I do not saunter,” she said, and might as well as have said, I will not waste time.
He increased his stride, his arms behind his back, a small tilt in his spine as if he were walking into a fierce head wind.
Neither said a word as they walked along. Neither glanced at the other. Their pace and strides naturally matched.
Without further ado, he finally said, “I’ve thought of you often, Fräulein. I hope I am not too forward by declaring it.”
“What have your declared?” she asked and stepped up her pace.
“I believe I am in love with you,” he said, not stopping or daring to look at her. “For this past year you are all I have ever thought about. Every day. You have been in my thoughts,” he said quickly.
“And that is love?” she asked, feeling the red burn rise up in her cheeks.
“I believe so, yes,” he said. “I have wanted nothing else other than to have this moment with you.”
She stopped and faced him then. “Where have you been?” More harshly than she intended – never wanting to give him a sense of how much his disappearance mattered.
“Eiger once more. Attempting the north face.” He stopped alongside her, his eyes unable to meet hers.
“Did you achieve it?”
“Yes,” he said.
“And you love me?” she asked.
“I confess a secret to you then. I believe I love you, too.”
She started up again, as did he. “Tell me of Eiger then,” she said, her cheeks on fire and her heart racing with pleasure. “Tell me the whole thing.”
“Yes,” he said. “I will. I promise. But one thing first.” And here he paused before saying it, speaking aloud the words that he thought he’d divined as her greatest wish.“But wouldn’t you prefer to go yourself? Rather than hear my telling?”
And her hand snaked its way to take his arm and never left again.
[What now? What’s this all about? Here… this sorta explains it.]
[Photo credit: Paul David Gibson]