You can't expect a day to end well when it begins in negotiations with a rat.
We stood there, the rat and I, beside a fragrant rubbish heap behind a cheese shop in Meiringen, Switzerland. Both of us eyed a large, moldy chunk of Gruyere that the cheese seller had recently tossed out. I was using a stick to argue that I deserved this breakfast, and the rat was using his front teeth in rebuttal. He was a lean, mangy critter, with one blind eye and a lame forepaw, and he argued that this cheese would be his only meal today.
But the same was true for me--the bit about the meal, not about being blind or lame. I was a bit mangy, though. I was twenty-one and skinny, with a few bits of hay clinging to my black hair from the loft where I had spent the night. When I'd quit Cambridge in 1890, I'd weighed two stone more, but my travels on the Continent had reduced me to skin and bone. My only resources now were a tattered Russian greatcoat and a rucksack with a change of clothes, a matchbox, a slingshot, and assorted tools. For a year, I had lived by my wits, my scientific prowess, and my genial nature--which meant that I was desperate for that cheese.
"What does a rat need with Gruyère?" I wanted to know. "I mean, you want to eat it, of course, but what are you going to do with it afterward? Just waddle back to your nest forsome sleep, yes? I need that cheese to propel me up the Alps!"
The rat blinked its one good eye, unimpressed.
"Look, I'm young. I have my whole life ahead of me. How old are you? Four? Five? Ancient. Maybe it's time you gave up the mortal coil. I mean, what have you to live for, anyway?"
I had my answer a moment later when another rat waddled up--a creature that seemed fat enough already until I realized she was pregnant.
"Oh ... right ..." I dropped my stick, bowed to my new friends, and gestured them toward the Gruyère. "Far be it from me to stand in the way of romance." My stomach growled its protest, but when I straightened back up, my altruism was rewarded.
Beyond the rubbish heap, I glimpsed another sort of feast.
She was leaving the front of the cheese shop, a white bonnet on her head and a blue skirt rustling about her legs ... . Surely that was a bustle under there, not her natural endowment. It was too perfect. I determined then and there to unravel this mystery.
She glanced my way.
I ducked behind the compost heap and waited there, breathless, before chancing a second look.
The girl wandered on down the cobbled road, swinging a small basket in which two wedges of Gruyère gleamed like bars of gold.
What luck! If I played this right, more than one appetite could be sated.
I brushed the hay from my hair and from my almost-beard (I called it a Vandyke, or at least that was what the fashionable set called it back at university), and followed her.
Though I was behind the young woman, I caught glimpses of her face and assembled them into a mentalcollage: She had blond hair that circled her head in long braids, wide blue eyes above freckled cheeks, a mouth just small enough to seem prim, and lips just round enough to seem luscious.
Could she really not have noticed the young man in the tattered greatcoat who followed her so worshipfully? Really?
The girl headed to a bakery and bought a baguette, and then to a vintner to buy a bottle of wine. A picnic, then! All she needed was company ... .
Occasionally, she glanced behind her as if she knew I followed. If she did know, she proved unable or unwilling to escape ... until she came to a bridge. It arched over the engorged Aare River at the edge of town. I could not follow her onto that span without being seen, but neither could I give up my quarry. My decision was made: Bridges are fine places for proposals.
As I approached from behind, the girl quickened her steps, but I caught her at the top of the arch and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. "Excuse me, miss."
She stopped and pivoted toward me, her cheeks flushing.
I gave a small bow and a large smile. "Do you speak English?"
Was that a tiny reflection of my smile on her lips? "English and French and German and Italian," she said, and her voice musically blended these languages.
She would be a one-woman tour of Europe. "Thank goodness. I'm a traveler, and I was wondering if you might know a place to stay."
"I'm sorry, monsieur," she demurred. "I'm a traveler, too."
"Then, surely you're staying ... somewhere?" I pressed.
Her lips clamped together for a moment, and then she said, "Well, yes. The Englischer Hof, up the hill, at the foot of the mountain." She daintily lifted her nose, indicating thespot, and I saw a grand chalet tucked up beneath the rocky face of a cliff.
If I had had a pocketbook, it would have fallen out of my pants. I couldn't even afford to stay in the stables. I'd have to work fast. "Would you mind if I accompanied you there, Miss--?"
"Schmidt." She said the name precisely, like a pair of scissors snapping together. "Anna Schmidt."
I bowed again. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Anna Schmidt. I am Thomas Carnacki." I took her basket of food and extended an arm to her. She tentatively laid her fine fingers on the ragged coat I wore.
"Are you traveling with anyone, Miss Schmidt?"
"I appear to be traveling with you."
I blushed. "Not just now, but in general."
Her eyes wandered my figure, taking my measure. "No. I am traveling alone."
I nodded gravely. "Hmm ... a quandary ..."
Anna looked at me, her eyes so wide and guileless I felt like a cad. "What quandary?"
"Well, you see, I too am traveling alone," I replied. "But if we travel alone ... together, well, we shall no longer be alone--"
"A quandary," she said.
"Yes. A quandary for the head," I said, daring to touch one of her braids, "but not for the heart."
She gazed at me, and for a moment her face was unmasked. More than that--it seemed made of glass so that I saw directly into her soul. Something was broken inside her.
"You're a learned man, aren't you?" she asked.
"Cambridge," I said, but added quickly, "and Paris and Rome. I'm really a student of the world. And you?"
"Student of the world," she echoed with a hint of sadness.
"Well, my collegial friend," I said, "what place around here holds lessons for folks like us?"
"Reichenbach," she murmured distractedly.
"The falls." She gestured up the mountainside. "A half-hour trek by carriage. Great black stones and ten thousand gallons of churning water in a thousand-foot drop." She nodded at the basket in my hand. "That's why the cheese and bread and wine."
"To think a girl like you would picnic alone beside the Reichenbach Falls," I said, lifting my hand in mock dismay.
Anna ignored my theatrics, even waiting for my hand to drop before she said, "I wouldn't have been alone."
She leveled her eyes at me. "I'm going to the falls because ... because that's where my father died. He was hiking above the falls, five years back, when I was just fourteen, and he ... fell. They never found his body."
"Oh, Anna," I said. "I'm terribly sorry."
I couldn't press on now: Grief trumps seduction.
I decided to make a clean breast of everything. "You've been candid with me, Anna, and I'll be candid with you. You're the loveliest woman I've ever seen, and so, I had hopes of, well--"
"Seducing me?" she supplied.
"Um, well, wooing was the word I would have used, but yours is more to the point. Yes, I had hopes of seducing you."
"The fact is that I have only a few francs, not really enough to stay at the inn. Not even enough for a carriage to take us to the falls. So--"
"So ... I will pay for it," she said, taking my hand. "My father was a wealthy man, and ... and I would like some company."
"Yes, Thomas," she said. "You would make better company than a hansom driver--that is, if you can handle a horse."
"Handle a horse?" I echoed, hoping that I sounded affronted rather than affrighted. "I would be honored to drive you to the falls." I bowed before her, deeply and honestly, there on the river-stoned approach to the inn. As I rose from my bow and saw the genuine blush on her freckled cheeks, I sensed that I was falling for Miss Anna Schmidt.
Arm in arm, we walked up the curving carriageway before the inn. It was a truly grand chalet--a steep roof bedecked in gingerbread, wide windows with ornate shutters, and an arched red doorway--well beyond my means. However, with a few francs from Anna, I went into the stable to hire a hansom.
The hostler looked askance at me, but not at Anna's money. In a trice, we had a horse harnessed to a carriage that pointed up the road toward the falls. I escorted Anna into the compartment and climbed up to the driver's seat in back. Taking the reins, I clucked once or twice to the horse and waited for something to happen.
Anna lifted the hatch in the roof and glanced up at me. "Try snapping the reins."
I gave the reins a shake, but the horse merely glanced back with a long-suffering look.
"Yah!" I suggested. "Get up! Off we go!"
With a snort, the horse turned its head away from me and started plodding forward. The hostler had been wise to point us in the right direction and to lend us a horse that knew theway. I experimented with guiding the beast a little left and a little right and found that it was willing enough to respond. Then I settled in for the ride.
The mountain air was cold and sweet, charged with sun on that fateful morning--the fourth of May, 1891. The road wended along the base of high cliffs and rose slowly until it broke out across a wide valley. Here and there, other tracks met ours, and at intervals I called out to Anna to make sure I was going the right way. She assured me I was.
We soon reached the Reichenbach River--a white serpent that hissed and foamed in its rush down the mountain. The cart path meandered along the unquiet stream. On either side of the river, meadows spread out to majestic forests of pine and spruce.
It was a fine morning, and I felt almost giddy, thinking of a picnic with Anna beside a magnificent waterfall. I was glad I had been honest with her and that I was no longer trying to seduce her. If anything, she was seducing me.
The wide pleasant fields soon gave way to boulders, and they to rocky rills, and they in turn to huge cliffs of coal-black stone. The cliff faces gradually closed around the river, funneling us inward. Ahead came a new sound: a deep thunder. It rumbled in my breastbone.
"Is that the falls?" I called out to Anna.
Anna leaned to glance through the hatch, and she gave a pensive nod.
Poor grieving girl. The sound of the falls made my heart tremble. For Anna, the sound must have been the drumbeat doom.
Soon, the road cut into the black cliff face. On one side, sheer slopes soared up to the sky, and on the other side, they plummeted to the river below. We came around a bend, and I spotted the falls.
What a sight! A long white cascade surged over the cliff face high above as if the water were pouring directly out of the sky. The falls were gossamer at the top, then fine and striated like a mare's tail, and then massive and columnar as they poured down the black throat of stone. Water blasted into a wide bowl that boiled white among jagged rocks. Mist rose from this cauldron, sometimes welling up to fill the valley, sometimes peeling away like ghosts. It was a beautiful and horrible place.
"You can turn the hansom around just up there," Anna called out, pointing to a wide spot in the road. "There's a ledge below where we can have our picnic."
Here was the test of my horse-handling skill. With my lip held firmly between my teeth, I drew on the reins, clucked and cajoled, tugged and taunted, and jolt by jolt brought the horse and cart around to face the way we had come. Sighing with relief, I pulled us to a halt and climbed down--to the left side. Our right wheel rested a scant foot from the precipice.
I gave a sheepish grin as I lifted a hand to help Anna down from the carriage.
She smiled knowingly. "I'm glad you know how to handle a horse."
She led me down a narrow path to a stony ledge surrounded by tough little wildflowers that grew out of cracks. There, we sat. I produced a small Scots dirk from the sheath in my stocking and sliced the baguette and cheese. I also dug through my rucksack to draw out my corkscrew. I'd bought it in Paris, and it had proved itself more valuable than any other tool I owned.
Soon, we feasted on Gruyere and bread and an 1885 Burgundy ... . But our feast was a quiet one. Anna was looking everywhere but at me, her eyes tracing the rugged rocks, the pathways, the boiling pool ... .
To sit in silence in the company of a beautiful woman was a skill I had never attained. "So much water," I said stupidly.
She did not respond.
"Judging from the dimensions of the cascade, I would guess you were right to put it at ten thousand gallons per second. Now, given that an inch of rain equals a foot of snow, roughly speaking, the mountaintop above must be melting one hundred twenty thousand gallons of snow a second. Impressive."
She showed no sign of being impressed.
"Science, you see," I said, lamely trying to coax her into the conversation. "I'm a scientist. I took a first in maths and physics at Cambridge."
"It must have been fascinating."
I nodded deeply. "Yes. Yes, it was. Everything bows to science."
"Not everything," she replied, looking into my eyes. "There are mysteries science cannot plumb."
I wagged a finger at her. "Cannot, or simply has not? Think of lightning. A century ago, it was the hammer of God. Now it's just electricity. And since science has harnessed lightning, well, we have the hammer of God, now, don't we?"
"Do you know that once at Cambridge, I used a tesla tube to shock a plenary worm back to life? Dead one moment, shocked the next, and alive the third. How's that for science? It penetrates even the mystery of death!"
A ghost seemed to pass between us, and Anna looked away toward the falls and rubbed a tear from her eye.
I was such a fool. "It must be hard," I ventured, watching her.
Still, she did not look at me, but only said, "Yes." Then her back straightened, and she stared toward the head of the falls. "Looks like ... Is something going on up there?"
I trained my eyes on the spot--great shoulders of black stone with the water pouring over them. "What is it?"
Anna pointed, her eyes narrowing. "Don't you see that motion, up there beside the falls? Something big."
I squinted and put a hand visorlike above my eyes, but still could make nothing out. "Probably a stag. They've got their winter velvet now and--"
"It's not a stag. It's ... a man. No, two men--and they're ... they're fighting!"
"Are you sure ... ?" The mist in the cauldron was building, and it started to draw its veil across us.
Anna waved it irritably away, her eyes pinned to the top of the cliff. "What if ... what if one of them fell?"
Still I looked, honestly looked, but I saw no one. "Anna, let's head back to the hansom."
"You think I'm seeing things," she accused, though she still did not turn her eyes away.
"I don't know what you're seeing ... but even if they are up there, you can't--there's nothing we can--"
"Oh, no!" she said, grabbing my arm. "One of them is falling! A man is falling."
I turned in terror, looking to the falls, and it seemed indeed that something was plunging down the cascade--perhaps a log or a boulder broken loose ... or a man. We watched the dark shape descend, wreathed in foam. Then it struck in the cauldron. Standing now, we peered into the boiling water, half expecting a head to pop up, or an arm or leg--something. There was only the whiteness.
"You saw, didn't you?" Anna asked.
I nodded slowly. "I saw something fall. Something large--but it may not have been a man."
"It was a man. I know it was." She looked to the top of thecliff and shielded her eyes. "The other man is gone. He's--he's a murderer ... ."
"Only if ..." I stopped. It was no good trying to speak reason. "I'll go down. I'll stand by the bank, maybe find a log or something to extend out if ... if the man comes to the surface ... but ..." I ambled away, down to the wild pool.
What if she was right and a man struggled in the water or, perhaps, tumbled, dead, in the churning stuff? The thought was horrible. But what if she was wrong and this was just a ghost of her father, long gone?
I stood by the cauldron for perhaps ten minutes. Aside from the roar and mist and foam, there was nothing. By the time I returned to Anna, her eyes were wide and rimmed with tears, and she seemed to be staring at something ten thousand miles away.
"Let's go, Anna," I said gently, taking her hand. She followed me as if in a trance, up the narrow trail to the road, and up again into the hansom cab. I climbed to the driver's seat above, took a deep breath, and then snapped the reins. This time, the horse did not quarrel, but only plodded away down the road.
I felt numb and cold, as if a shadow had been cast over me and Anna--not just darkness but evil. There had been something very wrong at those falls, some angry and undying presence. It was more than the blackness of the place, the merciless pounding, the convulsing mist--more even than the terrible suggestion of death or the terrible reality of it. Something pernicious haunted that place. Its claws were still in me.
We had gone half a mile down the road when Anna cried out, "Stop the cart! Stop it!"
I pulled up on the reins, and the horse plodded to a halt.
Anna spilled from the compartment, dress and hair streaming back from her as she ran past the horse and clambered down the slope toward the water. She was screaming.
I leaped down from the seat and rushed after her. Was she going to drown herself? "Stop! Anna!"
With a last desperate wail, Anna flung herself into the whitewater.
"No! Anna!" I shouted, vaulting down the slope. I thought she was gone forever, but then I saw her head rise above the waves. There was something in her arms--something heavy--a body: bloodless skin drawn tight over bone. The man was stripped of overcoat and shirtsleeves, flesh scratched by stones. He had been boiled white in frozen waves.
Anna struggled to turn him over, then stared incredulously into the man's aquiline face. "It's not my father! It's not my father!"
Scrambling down the bank, I plunged into the river--so cold!--and grabbed under the man's arms. A groan escaped his lips, perhaps the sound of life or perhaps merely air forced from dead lungs. With my hands beneath his armpits and my feet wedged between stones, I hauled the body up out of the water and laid it on solid ground.
Anna staggered up behind me. "It's not my father!"
"No, of course not," I snapped, kneeling beside the man. "Wake up! Wake up, whoever you are." I slapped his cheeks--wretched cheeks scratched by stones and fish-belly white. "Wake up! Are you alive?"
The eyelids of the battered man quivered and then slid back, and I stared into eyes more brilliant than any I had ever seen. The man sputtered water from his mouth and gasped, "I'm alive!" He blinked. His wrinkled fingers patted my hand as if to comfort me. "I am alive."
I leaned toward him and studied his face. He was a man inhis fourth decade, with a serious expression and eyes that beamed blue beneath tangled brows. Perhaps I should have checked his vital signs--looked for bleeding or broken bones--but I could only blurt, "Who are you?"
"What?" he asked.
"Who are you?" I repeated. "What's your name?"
Those radiant eyes grew dim. "I don't know."
Copyright © 2008 by J. R. King