Furka Pass, Switzerland, 1885
EVER SINCE THEY STARTED climbing along the winding road, the air was decidedly chilly. Fogginess marred the view, which Clemmie assumed was spectacular. This was the Swiss Alps—a tribute to splendor if there ever was one, from what she’d heard.
All this was beyond exciting, heading to Italy on her honeymoon. She’d known this day would come, but she hadn’t been sure exactly when, and that she’d be so lucky in her husband, Oliver Rowland. One of the most handsome men she’d ever met, and she’d been beside herself when he’d started courting her. Clear skin and good features, neat brown hair and soulful eyes—eyes she could get lost in.
The courtship had gone perfectly, and now they were here, traveling to Italy together. It still felt strange that she was allowed to simply leave with him, after all the supervision and chaperoning, she was now a wife, and such things weren’t needed. Not that they really had been necessary. She wasn’t one to flout the rules simply because they were there. Those girls definitely existed, and she’d met a few of them at her finishing school.
“Are you cold?” Oliver asked.
“No, I am perfectly warm.” He’d furnished her with a woolen blanket and she was as comfortable as could be, although a little weary with all the movement. The carriage was well sprung, but these were long days.
“This hotel is new, and the view is a marvel,” Oliver said. “The Rhone Glacier is magnificent. The weather was too poor when I was here before, but I thought we’d stay a few days and recover from the journey. Hopefully, we’ll get a day or two where we can properly see the glacier. They say it’s a remnant from the ice age.”
History wasn’t something Clemmie excelled at, so she wasn’t sure how long ago that was. “That is a wonder,” she said and smiled. Oliver liked it when she was impressed by the things he said, and she adored that he cared about her opinion.
They seemed to be a very good match. His family was good. They had all seemed very nice the times they’d met. They’d dined together, both her family and his. Her father was pleased with the match.
During those meetings before they’d married, he’d told her of his Grand Tour and how he’d loved Italy. And now he was sharing that love with her. It was beyond exciting.
“I hope we get some good days,” she said with a smile. Oliver smiled back. She adored it when he smiled, and it was hard not to see how excited he was about this trip. Truthfully, stopping to see a glacier wasn’t something that would occur to her, but she was about to find out why anyone would. “Are we traveling through Paris on the way home as well?”
“It is probably the easiest way.”
“I like Paris.”
“You liked the fashion,” Oliver stated.
“I cannot deny I was inspired.”
“Well, in Italy, it is the landscape, the history, the architecture. The food and the people. Water so blue, it cannot be matched. It is simply marvelous.”
It was true she was looking forward to it. How could she not when Oliver spoke so enthusiastically about it.
“I think we must be getting close now,” Oliver said and leaned closer to the window. Raindrops ran down the outside of the pane. All Clemmie saw was gray wetness, but it was still very exciting. Just being here with Oliver was amazing, and he was her husband.
The carriage seemed to reach a peak for a while, not the first they’d encountered. They’d gone up mountains endlessly. At times the wind pushed on the side of the carriage, which made her wonder how harsh the weather was outside.
They turned a sharp corner and the carriage slowed.
“I think we’re here,” Oliver said and shifted closer to the door. Clemmie felt the coolness of his absence. In all, she was ready to stretch her legs, to get out of this carriage for a while. A cup of tea wouldn’t go astray either. Lunch had been nice, although the food and flavors were unfamiliar.
Oliver opened the door and the blustering wind beat into the carriage. “Come,” he said, holding his hand out. “We’re definitely here.”
“Excellent,” Clemmie said and stepped out. The pressure of the wind on her skirt was immediate. It was hard to keep her eyes open fully. No, the weather wasn’t nice at all, but perhaps it would pass by morning.
Porters came and attended to their trunks, while a doorman came to let them inside. The hotel seemed nice, very new. A roaring fire crackled not far away and Clemmie moved closer to it while Oliver dealt with the desk.
The fire drew her attention for a while. Hopefully, it would chase away the cold humidity that seemed to stick to her. The dampness wasn’t ideal for her blond curls, but little could be done about that. The warmth was reassuring, and before long, Oliver was back, holding two steaming cups. He handed one to her. “Hot cider,” he said.
With a smile, Clemmie accepted it and took a small sip of the warm liquid. Wisps of steam rose from it and the cup itself warmed her hand. It was spiced—a pleasant drink.
“Our rooms will be ready soon. They’re preparing them now. Are you hungry?”
“I think I prefer to wait until supper,” Clemmie replied and took another sip of her cider.
An older woman walked into the room, wearing a silk gown in dark blue, with black beading. She had a regal bearing and her gray hair was neatly pinned.
“Where are you, Monsieur Weber?” she asked in German. Clemmie was pleased that after years of study, she’d mastered the fundamentals of the language. “That stupid man is never where he’s supposed to be.”
“I believe he is seeing all is right with our rooms,” Oliver stated.
The woman turned sharply and considered them. No expression broke her cool regard. Perhaps she didn’t understand English.
A younger woman, a maid, by the look of it, came rushing out from where the woman had come. “I’ll speak to the kitchen,” the young woman said nervously.
“See that you do,” the lady said and then kept walking.
“That is Countess Wilhelmina von Rothbach,” a man said. English by accent. “She is… exacting, I have observed. Her carriage has had an incident. I fear not everything is to her standards at the moment.” The man flipped his paper over and under his arm. “Philip Coleridge. Antiquarian. Oxford.”
“Oliver Rowland, former student.”
“Ah,” the man said with delight. “And what did you study?”
“Classical literature, mostly.”
“Marvelous. You would have known Aldus Copperall then.”
“I did indeed,” Oliver responded. “Oh, and this is Clementine Rowland. My wife.”
“A delight,” Philip said, stepping forward to take her hand. A quick kiss on her knuckles and he released it. Truthfully, Clemmie was a little too weary and unsettled to fully engage in conversation with strangers, but Oliver seemed to warm to the man.
“I might rest,” Clemmie said when she saw the man from the desk return.
“Right, of course,” Oliver said with a smile. “We should see where our rooms are.”
“Naturally. Well, I hope we’ll see each other at supper. The weather is a little rough just at the moment. I should move north, but I thought I might wait for a nice day. The Alps are stunning when the sun shines. They really are. It’s worth the wait. The glacier is astounding. I hope you get a chance to see it while you’re here.”
“We hope to,” Oliver replied. “One can only pray the weather will be merciful to us.”
“In the meantime,” Mr. Coleridge said, “I might see myself to the bar. They keep quite good stock. Perhaps to keep us sedate in bad weather like this,” he finished with a wink.
Clemmie smiled. He did seem like a nice man, but as she stood there, she stifled a yawn.
“Come, my dear,” Oliver said and urged her toward the neatly uniformed young man who stood waiting for them. “I think resting before supper would do us both good.”
They were taken through a doorway, where lanterns lit a hallway that felt a little dark. Being up in the mountains, the gas for lighting would be quite impossible. They followed the young man, who walked silently on the thick carpet, up a set of stairs and along another hallway.
“Room fourteen,” he said as he stopped and turned back to them before unlocking the door with a key attached to an engraved brass oval.
The room itself was bright, with large windows. A fire warmed the space. There were a sitting room and bedroom to the right. “This is perfect,” Oliver said, taking the key off the young man.
“The water closet is down the hall. Hot water is available between eight and ten in the mornings.”
“Excellent. Our trunks have been brought?”
“Of course,” the young man said and made to leave.
“Why don’t you go rest?” Oliver suggested. “I think I’ll sit and read for a while. Perhaps I will join Mr. Coleridge in the bar, if that’s alright.”
“Perfect.” Admittedly, she preferred that he stay, but she didn’t want to be seen as overbearing and needy. She was only going to rest, after all. She’d done so in strange rooms on a number of occasions. It just hadn’t been in another country. “I suppose it will be dark soon.”
“It shouldn’t take long, I would suspect.”
“Perhaps light a lamp before you go. I should hate to wake in total darkness.”
“Of course,” Oliver said and came over to give her a quick kiss. Again, she stifled a yawn. “Go rest.”
THE DINING ROOM WAS A large space with tables dotting the space. People talked and ate. A laugh pierced through the murmur of the diners.
Mr. Weber greeted them. “Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Rowland. You join us this evening. Mr. Coleridge is here if you wish to join him.”
“Of course,” Oliver said brightly, and Clemmie irrationally wondered if her company was boring him. Perhaps they had spent too much time together, as it had only been them for days on end. But before she could think about it further, she was being led to a table on the far side of the dining hall by the dark window.
Mr. Coleridge was seated and looked happy to see them. “I hope you’re well-rested. It can be a testing journey through the mountains. Now, I understand you’re heading south.”
“Yes, we are to visit both Venice and Florence.”
“Both wondrous cities. Have you been before?”
Oliver and Mr. Coleridge went on to talk about sights they’d seen and what there was to see. As Clemmie knew very little, it was hard to follow the conversation. Instead, she watched as the countess arrived in the dining room, wearing the same dress as before—and the same look of disapproval. Clemmie suspected the woman’s disapproval was perpetual.
“Very old family,” Mr. Coleridge said, having noticed her walk in too. “As I understand it, they are related to Catherine the Great, and by extension with most of the royal families in Europe. She’s heading south to Italy as well, I believe. I heard it said she heads south for her health.”
“But it’s spring,” Clemmie said with confusion. “Would she not go south for the winter?”
“Correct you are. Perhaps it’s pollen she fears. Some are like that, cannot tolerate summers.”
That was true. Clemmie had a friend who suffered terribly with summer sniffles.
“The Mediterranean climate is gentler in most regards, except when it comes to the heat in summer. I, personally, cannot tolerate the heat, so I head north for summer, like the birds do.”
Clemmie smiled at the comparison.
“She has quite the entourage,” he continued, referring to the countess. I believe she has one of the grandchildren with her, who travels with nurses and a governess. And there’s a companion too, and other people whose purpose I don’t know. “One cannot always relate to the nobles. They do seem less independent than most. I couldn’t imagine traveling with so many.”
“Do you travel alone, Mr. Coleridge?” Clemmie asked.
“I do. I tend to meet people at my destination, but traveling together is tiring, I find. It doesn’t always bring out the best in people. And when you travel with a group, you are so less likely to meet interesting people like yourself.”
“Rightly said,” Oliver said. “I made some fast friends out of the people I’ve stumbled across while abroad.”
“Now comes a German couple. Mr. and Mrs. Schonberg, who I believe come from Munich. Lovely couple. Their English isn’t perhaps the best, but better than my German. I believe, like yourself, they are on their honeymoon.”
Clemmie looked over to see a young couple, very handsome.
“They’ve been here a few days and he’s rather partial to tramping around the mountains. A hobby I cannot bring myself to understand. So, I expect they intend to be here a few days. Actually, I gather this is the destination for their honeymoon.”
“Oh,” Clemmie said with surprise, not having guessed anyone would choose this as the location for their honeymoon.
“Then we have a Russian gentleman over there. I know very little about him. We haven’t had the chance to be introduced. He arrived shortly before you did. The others I haven’t really met either. Although I did meet Mr. Moran, a businessman from Milan. I believe he is heading north to Germany.”
“This is quite the intersection of Europe, isn’t it?” Clemmie said.
“As I said, it is certainly a place to meet interesting people.”
Their meals arrived. Roasted lamb with small potatoes and fine gravy. A bottle of wine accompanied it. “I have to say I haven’t had a bad meal since I arrived.”
It was delicious and Clemmie felt her hunger after the long day’s travel. She probably ate a little more than she should have, and ended up with the uncomfortable feeling of being just a bit too content. The wine was delicious as well, and she stayed with her wine while the men enjoyed their desserts.
“There’s a village down in the valley,” Mr. Coleridge stated once he’d finished. “Today we can’t see it, but on a clear evening, you can see the lights. It’s a delightful little village. A very good bakery. The Germans are good bakers. Some would say the French are better, but I don’t agree.”
The noise of a broken plate drew their attention back toward the countess’ table and the waiter rushed to help. In the commotion, the countess rose and left the dining room. One of the younger women looked flustered and close to tears. It seemed not a happy household.
“Have you seen the glacier?” Oliver asked.
“It’s magnificent. It is ice, but it has colors you can see nowhere else. There’s a cave you can walk into, and you are surrounded by ice. I don’t know how thick is it over your head, but it has to be at least thirty yards if not more. The ice has a translucent quality, of course. It really is a marvel.”
“I’d very much like to see it,” Oliver said.
“It would be a crime to pass through here and not see it. Shall we retire to the parlor?”
“Excellent Idea,” Oliver said, turning to Clemmie questioningly.
“I could do with a small digestive,” she said.
“They have all the Italian liqueurs and sherries from Portugal. Port too, if that suits your fancy.”
“A sherry would be nice.”
They rose and left the dining room. There were a surprising number of people there. The hotel had to be close to full occupancy. But perhaps people came from places around, such as the village, to dine here as well.
The parlor had a more comfortable quality, with cushioned chairs and a large fire. Dark wood paneling on the walls gave a warm quality. There looked to be a library attached to it. It was a nice space, particularly on a cold night.
The Italian gentleman they’d seen before was there, reading a book and sipping on a small glass of liqueur. A cigar sat on an ashtray next to him.
“Do you mind if I smoke, Mrs. Rowland?”
For a moment, she didn’t answer. She still wasn’t used to her new surname and didn’t always recognize that she was being spoken to. “No, please go ahead,” she said when she realized her error. The smell of cigars reminded her of her father, who liked to smoke in the evenings after supper. Oliver didn’t like tobacco and declined when Mr. Coleridge offered him one.
A man came over and inquired if they wanted drinks and both Mr. Coleridge and Oliver requested a port, while Oliver asked for a sherry for her. As she sat, she watched the Italian man, who was dark in complexion and had hair in neat waves along his head. Absently, he took a sip of his liqueur without looking up from his book. Perhaps she should explore some of the excellent Italian liqueurs Mr. Coleridge had mentioned. It was a topic she knew very little about, and it would be nice to return from this trip with expanded experiences.
The fire crackled, and Clemmie started to feel more relaxed. Her rest hadn’t been terribly long. It had been difficult to fall asleep and she wasn’t sure she’d gotten that much rest in the end.
The warmth and the pleasantly subdued conversation were lulling her into tiredness. Even the sherry did little to revive her, and she struggled to keep her eyes open. Hopefully, she would sleep very well that night, Oliver’s warm body next to her.
For his sake, she hoped there would be a clear day come morning. Mr. Coleridge’s description of the glacier had her curious. Her mind couldn’t conceptualize what he was saying, but she was eager to see what he meant. Oh, the stories she would tell her cousin when she returned home.
“I think I must retire soon,” she said to Oliver. It wouldn’t be long before her tiredness grew too much for her to fight.
“You do look tired.”
She smiled at the observation. “Happily so,” she replied.
“Then you must retire,” Mr. Coleridge said. “A young couple on their honeymoon should not spend their evenings entertaining lone travelers such as myself.”
“Unfortunately, I am too weary to argue with you, Mr. Coleridge. The evening has been delightful, but we must bid you good evening.”
“Of course. Good night. Hopefully, we’ll have a spectacular day tomorrow.”
Truthfully, Clemmie felt she’d have a spectacular day no matter what the weather was like. A few days of rest after so much travel was the most welcoming thought she could think of.
IT WASN’T BRILLIANT SUNSHINE when Clemmie woke the next morning, but it was brighter than the day before. Mist covered the valley, but she could see the hazy outlines of the village below. It did look romantic. The houses here were so different from what she was used to seeing at home. It hadn’t occurred to her before she’d left English shores that houses could be built differently, but they embraced wooden houses here with gabled roofs. The quantity of snow in the winters required such roofs, she understood.
Oliver lay in bed behind her. Lying like that, warm with sleep, he looked so unguarded. A complete intimacy beyond anything she’d known before. It was lovely. So far, she liked married life quite a bit. She also liked the freedoms that came with being a wife—something she was just getting used to. She could be left on her own, even to wander down the street on her own. It was very liberating.
Obviously, she’d longed for the freedom of being a married woman, and to have a household of her own. In all, she felt she’d been reasonably well prepared. Although she was going to miss her mother’s guidance, even if it felt overbearing at times. That was something she hadn’t expected either.
But Oliver seemed to make a good husband. She was lucky in that regard. There had been a girl or two that she’d seen returning from their honeymoons with stiff smiles and lost expressions. Not all men made good husbands. She’d heard the stories.
And Oliver was so handsome. Their children would be cherubs. To think she could be a mother later in the year. It would be close to Christmas time. It was too abstract to think.
Oliver stirring drew her attention back to him. “Good morning,” she said.
“Uh, I need a coffee. What’s the weather like?” he asked, sitting up quickly as if he realized where he was.
“It’s better today. I can see the village. Barely. It’s still very misty.”
“Maybe it will clear. I wonder if the glacier can be seen.”
“It doesn’t look like we can see it from our window.”
“I think the breakfast room. Come, let’s go to breakfast,” Oliver said and rose. Grabbing his clothes to dress by the fire. A maid had come in that morning to tend to the fire, so their room was nice and warm. The air had had a wet quality during the night that had dissipated with the fire.
“Alright,” Clemmie said. “I’ll call for the maid.”
Oliver was already dressed and was brushing his teeth. “I will see you downstairs when you’re finished. I’ll go downstairs to smoke, so I won’t disturb you.” It was considerate and she appreciated it. The smell of tobacco, although she liked it after supper, wasn’t something she was as attached to first thing in the morning. And she really didn’t want to have to open the windows. The heat from the fire would flee in seconds. It looked cold outside. There were even remnants of snow on the ground. Perhaps it never fully melted. The peaks of the mountains around them were still frosted with thick snow. It really was magnificently beautiful.
It took a few moments before the maid came to help her dress. It felt a bit awkward being attended by girls she’d never met before, but that was simply part of traveling, and she didn’t want to insist on bringing a maid with her. This trip was just for her and Oliver, so she had to depend on the maids available in the hotels they stayed in.
The girl was blond with freckles on her nose. She spoke in German, and Clemmie could direct the girl sufficiently as to which dress and how to set her hair. It wasn’t perhaps to the quality of a trained ladies’ maid, but it was decent enough.
The hall was cold in comparison as Clemmie left her room. Darker too as there was only one window at the very end of the hallway. At the stairway, she met a man she hadn’t seen before and smiled guardedly when she saw him. Dark hair and pale skin. Handsome. About thirty if she were to guess. With a quick bow, he urged her to take the stairs before him.
Downstairs, she found Oliver in the salon, talking to Mr. Coleridge again. They seemed to have hit it off. “Ah, there you are. I am famished. Would you care to join us, Mr. Coleridge?” Oliver asked.
“That would be a pleasure. A hearty breakfast before I set off.”
“Are you leaving today?” Clemmie asked.
“I am indeed. Both myself and my horses are sufficiently rested, so I venture north. One cannot be waylaid too long. I have a lecture I must make my way back to, else I would stay a bit longer.”
Tapping his pipe on the edge of the glass ashtray, he discarded the burning tobacco and put away the pipe in his inside pocket.
“This is a very curious area,” he continued as they walked into the breakfast room, which was more informal than the dining room. But the windows revealed the glacier beyond. It was astoundingly large
“Oh,” Clemmie said, not having realized it would be quite so substantial. It was grayish white and rough in texture, hints of blues and greens in the crevasses.
“Our understanding is that it’s around twenty thousand years old,” Mr. Coleridge said.
“Truly?” Clemmie asked, unable to fathom such a long period of time.
They found a seat close to the windows. The food was served on side tables in buffet style, but Clemmie was too distracted by the glacier to think of food right now. Oliver didn’t have the same awe, and had taken himself off to peruse the side tables.
“Well, it surpasses Rome.”
“Is that what you study, Mr. Coleridge?” Clemmie asked. “The Roman Empire?”
“It is. But it is a largely unstudied history in the Alps. We knew the Romans were here, of course. In fact, a regiment was permanently stationed here, to protect the empire against the marauding Gauls. The Tropaeum Alpium was erected more toward the French side of the Alps to celebrate their victory over this area.”
“Fascinating,” Clemmie said. In truth, she wasn’t particularly fascinated by Romans, but she liked it when people had passions, and the way their faces lit up when they spoke about it.
“There are stories about them in this part of the Alps too. In fact, there is a legend of a battalion getting lost in the area during bad weather, and never being found. If I were an adventurous sort, I would go in search for them. Perhaps that is what Mr. Schonberg is here to search for? It would be quite a find if they were to be covered. Some say the glacier swallowed them.”
Mr. Weber was roaming with a coffee pot and approached. “It is said they haunt the valley,” he said with a wink. “Some swear they can hear them marching on a dark misty day. It is said it was the mist that swallowed them.”
“How awful,” Clemmie uttered.
“Utter nonsense, of course. But it is true that they got lost somewhere here and were never seen again. Most likely they tried to cross the glacier and fell into a crevasse.”
“That can happen, and they haven’t been the only ones,” Weber said. “The glacier is very dangerous and venturing onto it should only be attempted with an experienced guide.”
“I think I will stay off it entirely.”
“There’s a viewing platform just up the mountain. It provides the most wonderful view of the entire glacier. Well worth a visit.”
“That sounds like something we could attempt,” Oliver said, returning with two plates of cheese, toast and cold meats. “If the weather clears up, we should find it.”
“At midday, the weather is likely to clear,” Mr. Weber said. “We may even see some sun today.”
“Then perhaps it will be the perfect day for me to continue my journey,” Mr. Coleridge said.
“And it has been a pleasure to have you,” Mr. Weber said before continuing with his coffee pot to the other tables.
“It is new, this hotel, but I think I’ll try to stop here when I return come autumn.” They ate for a while in silence. “I suppose it’s time to get going. It’s been a pleasure to meet you both. I hope you have an inspiring time in Italy, as I’m sure you will. You’ll have a marvelous time, and it’s a good time of year to go. Not too hot. You don’t want to spend your entire time in Italy hiding from the sun.”
“Thank you,” Oliver said and rose to shake his hand. “It’s been a pleasure. Happy journey. I hope your travels are smooth.”
“Mrs. Rowland,” Mr. Coleridge said with a quick bow before he walked out of the room. It felt strange that he was leaving when they’d just met him.
Oliver sat back down again and stared out the window. “Perhaps we should go for a tramp up the valley with that German gentleman.”
“I think I’ll leave you to contemplate such ventures,” Clemmie said with a smile, “but you could ask.”
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© 2020 Camille Oster.