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Austrian Holiday

Austrian Holiday

Soft laughter rings above the crusted snow, Light footsteps hurry past.

—A. C. Benson.

1.

AS I look from the hotel window at Kufstein, I am delighted by the prospect. Below me on a terrace tables have been placed, shaded by gay umbrellas with broad red and white stripes. Along the railing are blue boxes filled with scarlet geraniums and mauve petunias. In a corner is a tank with live trout. A portly cook with tall white cap dips frantically with a small net and lifts a flapping fish. I shall return here for dinner.

The grey Inn glides smoothly by. Only in the recurrent eddies does one hear its sh-sh-shish, as if pieces of paper were rubbing against one another. Across the bridge comes the current of traffic. Two little boys haul a miniature dray-wagon, loaded with a wheel-like object that is more probably a cheese than a grindstone. Three students ride on bicycles. They wear leathern shorts and grey jackets of loden cloth with olive-green facings. Two are bareheaded and have rucksacks on their backs ; the other has a guitar slung across his shoulders and a bunch of alpine roses in the cord of his hat.

Now comes a cart, piled high with barrels, a red-faced teamster surmounting all and grinning down from above his two white horses to greet a friend who drives an ox-cart full of logs in the opposite direction. This halts the progress of a victoria, the sole occupant of which, a pale lady with veil and parasol, may have been, for all one knows, a beauty of Vienna half a century ago.

Up the street, before the church, is a fountain. Several young women are doing a bit of laundry, but the work languishes as they exchange sharp banter with the peasant lads who saunter jauntily by, puffing long pipes. Three sides of the square are flanked by houses and inns, whitewashed and gaily decorated with frescoes in tempora. A few have handsome antique signs of wrought-iron jutting from beneath brown wooden balconies. In the shop windows are groups of pottery, in which pink and blue dogs and goats predominate over more exotic animals of deep yellow with crimson spots. In others, enticing shelves of long loaves and gaudy pastry adjoin windows packed with snow-glasses, ice-axes and ropes.

Nearby, through maple groves, the slope rises to a stone passage whose windings lead upward to the fortress of Geroldseck on the heights above. Its massive tower is the landmark of Kufstein for miles up and down the river Inn.

Geroldseck will always be symbolic of Emperor Maximilian I. Here he came, in 1504, to batter its mighty walls into submission during war with the Bavarians. His famous cannon, Weckauf and Burlebaus, floated down the Inn on rafts, brought victory to this last of the knights, whose feats of arms found record in the forests of spears in the book, Weiss Kunig. Now the recast bronze of those guns stands upright in the statues of royalty maintaining vigil about his intended tomb in the Hofkirch of Innsbruck.

Though Maximilian’s dust lies beneath the altar in the distant church of Wiener Neustadt, his spirit is everywhere. One senses it in the hunting tapestries of the Louvre, in the ruined castles between the Malser Heide and the Achensee, in every forest and mountain group of the Eastern Alps.

In his allegorical book, Theucrdank, we have famous pictures of the adventures of his youth, of those days when he rode to the chase with his adored wife who was Mary of Burgundy. The first view of an avalanche ; the oldest engravings showing the equipment of a mountain-climber ; pictures among the earliest to record chamois hunting as it was enjoyed at the time when Columbus voyaged westward.

We do not know that Kaiser Max ever reached the summit of a lofty peak, although he said that he had climbed on the highest mountains of Europe and that no one had been nearer Heaven. We are uncertain whether he ever ventured on a glacier, although at least one episode of Theuerdank gives credence to such a feat. But we do know that he was beloved of the mountain people, and that, in the four centuries separating him from Albert of the Belgians, no ruler has ventured more gaily on high hills than this huntsman of the Renaissance.

2.

Fog hangs low before the Glockner-haus. Sweeps of mist are tangled in the tree-tops, with undulant arms slowly rising and falling above the chasm. The snout of the Pasterze Glacier protrudes from beneath the cloud level, vivid blue, with emerald greens in the crevasses, complementing the browns and greys of terminal moraine. From far away unseen distance comes the sullen freight-train thumping of avalanche.

The motor-post, bulging across the road-bed. grinds to a stop. A Teutonic caravan : the men presenting an array of shaven heads, with binoculars and encased maps pendant to thick necks ; the women, half-smothered in loden capes, gazing stolidly ahead. “There. Herrschaften,” shouts the driver, “there is the splendid glacier of Pasterze, the largest in the Eastern Alps, and above it the snow-spire of the Gross Glockner—which you would see were it not for the clouds.” No passenger budges. No one speaks. All is brooding gloom. The chauffeur descends for refreshment, returns shortly, reverses the coach and is off.

None of these tourists, one thinks, was aware that in a room of the museum at Klagenfurt there is a spirited painting, by Scheffer von Leonhardshoff, depicting the start of Bishop Salm's party for the Glockner in 1799. The leaders ride on horseback, the bishop wearing a frock coat. They had been dreaming of this adventure for twenty years. Guides are seated in the foreground, busy with their ropes and staffs. Others carry provisions and faggots. A peasant woman drives two pigs down the road ahead.

News of Saussure’s ascent of Mont Blanc, twelve years before, had spread through scientific circles. Here, in the Eastern Alps, was another great peak, perhaps the loftiest in Austria, despite the measurements of the peasant, Anich, crediting this preeminence to the Ortler.

Salm’s followers reach Heiligenblut. Through the lateral Leiter Valley they make contact with the long southeast ridge of the mountain, where the bishop has had a small shelter constructed, slight remains of which may be seen to this day.

On August 19th, 1799. the bishop’s vicar-general, von Hohenwarth, two village carpenters, the brothers Klotz, and three others plant a cross on the summit of the Klein Glockner. Amid rejoicing, the bishop causes a medal to be struck in commemoration. In the following year the highest point is won.

Today, all the beauty is below the snow-line. We, who are not in a hurry, stroll down the old path. Across the valley twisted pines margin a glorious cascade at the mouth of the Leiter Valley. Roaring down the rocks, with wreathing spray drifting from its foot, it seems to hold far-off voices : the spirits of men who rode with Bishop Salm so long ago.

A shower of rain is impending. An old cow-herd leaves the trail and sits down under a feathery larch tree. His back against the bronze trunk, he pulls his mantle snugly about his neck and adjusts a long pipe to an angle of rest. His head nods forward and he is asleep.

We are leaning against a little hillock covered with dry moss. The alpine roses are in flower, the under surfaces of their leaves russet brown, and the clusters of bloom glowing in their brilliance. Between the bushes are sprays of fragrant heliotrope, and nodding bell flowers. So tight a roof the larches form that scarcely a raindrop reaches us. Velvety grey cows loiter in the edge of the glade, and the arrhythmia of deep-toned bells parallels their movement through the tall grass.

The rain is over. Slants of sunlight pour through the forest, catching the mist-laden air in its beams, as if entering a darkened room through a thousand key-holes. We walk down-trail. The Leiter waterfall is a shaft of silver. On a flat meadow ragged arnica flowers of brilliant orange sway beside anemone tufts, with dew drops on every petal. At the far end, almost overhanging space, is a stone chapel with an engraved bell in its white turret. Through the portico one can see squares of fields in variegated green and yellow, and chalets dotted like toys.

On the outskirts of Heiligenblut a young peasant woman is cutting wood with a cross-cut saw. Her tiny boy, in leathern breeches and feathered hat, grasps the opposite end. “Come, see what a fine helper I have.” she calls, “and send me our photograph from America.”

A rainbow arches across the Leiter gorge. The distant waterfall is heard no longer. The clouds compress in horizontal layers with bluest sky between. Above them the Glockner shines and glitters, and the new snow blows in festoons from its peak.

3.

The white post-road is a bright ribbon before the inn at Rosenthal. In the hallway a wooden table is piled high with newly washed curtains. Along the wall are three pairs of stag horns. Above them, in the angle between roof and wall, swallows have plastered their nests. The mother bird sails in through the open door, alighting on a prong of the horns. Three babies lift their black heads and white breasts above the edge of the nest. They look like tiny penguins, and their noise is out of all proportion to their size. The mother flies up to them.

Through the door we notice that a boy, leading a young bull with a ring in its nose, stops to chat with a maid who escorts a pig by a string tied to its right hind foot. The porker sets up a dreadful squealing at the delay. On this side of the valley, cows are grazing on a curious morainal hillock surmounted by the crumbling walls of an ancient castle. There are large trees growing on its broken battlements. Opposite, the morning mists drift before a dark symmetrical promontory, and light streams through the lateral Sulzbach valleys to either side, revealing the snows of the Venediger.

Down by the brook, two sun-tanned lads in bathing trunks prepare their canvas boat for a swift voyage to the lake of Zell. One has stopped for a moment to assist a peasant mother bathe her naked baby in a huge wooden wash-tub.

On the road to Krimml we pass two old men mowing. They have long white beards, and their scythes move slowly but with rhythm and purpose. They work mechanically, with unseeing eyes. The golden grain falls in straight aisles. Further on, the edge of the field is marked by a sign which reads, roughly translated :

“O, good friend, who passeth by,

Mark the way thy path doth lie ;

Lest thou should tread upon this grass.

And one mistake thee for an ass.”

School is out and children, with their bags, come running past the fountain. The dark balconies of chalets are lighted by strings of spotless linen blowing in the wind.

Krimml is the terminus of the narrow-gauge railroad that runs from Zell am See through the Salzach Valley. The engineer chugs one of the engines back and forth on a siding. It is small and black, with gold trimmings and a high spreading funnel. He notes our amusement and presses valves so that jets of white steam pour forth.

Through this valley, more than a century ago, came Archduke John of Habsburg on his visit to the Krimml waterfalls. He was the son of Leopold II, and brother of Francis II, last of the Holy Roman Emperors. He lived at Graz, in Styria, and, like the great Maximilian, was a lover of mountains. Later on, seeing the Ortler from the Reschen Scheideck Pass, he commissioned a member of his suite, Gebhard by name, to climb this splendid peak, the culminating point of Tyrol.

Archduke John ascended the Ankogel in 1826, and two years later made an attempt on the Venediger, repulsed on a difficult route by an avalanche which struck down his leading guide. All these adventures resulted from his wandering in that long ago summer of 1800, and that is what we were thinking of as we sat below the falls of Krimml, where the foaming water seemed to hurl itself through the tree-tops, and a little troop of goats stood silhouetted against the driving sunlit spray.

4.

An ancient fortress above a river ; a century-old painting of a man on a white horse ; cascading waterfalls above a valley’s head —these hold the memory of three men, a snow-capped range above us joining their spirits with ours.