On a warm and breezy April afternoon in 1927, a little black train pulled into the station at Seespitz, on the edge of the Tiernsee lake, and a tall, slim young lady clambered down from one of the high carriages, hefting a suitcase after her. In her twenties and quite out of the ordinary, with her fiery hair and delicately-boned face, she had drawn the attention of her fellow travellers, but she had remained serenely oblivious to their interest. Upon alighting from the train, she paused for a moment on the platform and looked about her with obvious pleasure, then slowly made her way across to the landing stage and boarded the steamer.
Once on board she placed herself in the bows and gazed out at the lofty mountains, and since her face was turned away from the rest of the boat no-one witnessed the melancholy that drifted into her fine eyes as the splendour of the scenery lost its initial charm and her attention began to wander. She remained quite still, lost in thought, until the boat approached the Briesau landing stage, and then she gathered herself, her coat and her suitcase and disembarked, and made straight for the nearest hotel.
From the garden of her Briesau chalet, Sarah Denny saw the steamer come in, but she did not give it much attention. She was preoccupied with clearing out the beds in the corner of her little garden, preparatory to planting some roses which she had ordered on her return from Paris, and so she turned back to the withered shrubbery and applied herself vigorously to cutting it back and to removing the sprightly weeds that had taken hold in such a short time.
She had just succeeded in removing a particularly tenacious specimen of dandelion when, straightening up, she found herself facing our acquaintance from the steamer, the sad-eyed, red-headed stranger, who was standing just on the other side of the fence and smiling with a slight diffidence.
“Entschuldigung, meine Frau,” she began in heavily accented German, “aber ich süche…er…das Weg ins - or is it zum - Bärenbad?”
She broke off and Sarah came to the rescue.
“Just up the valley from us,” she said, pointing in the direction of the mountain, and grinned at the surprise on the woman’s face. “Yes,” she said, “I’m as English as you. But surely you can’t be meaning to climb today? It’s far too late to be starting now.”
“Oh, I’m not,” said the woman with a smile. “But I mean to tomorrow, so I thought I’d get my bearings tonight. And as for being as English as me, you’ll be redefining borders if you think that’s the case!”
“Yes,” said Sarah, who had realised her mistake as soon as she had heard the soft Highland lilt in the woman’s voice, “I do apologise for that inadvertent insult. In my defence, it’s quite hard to tell, in German, but I can hear it quite clearly now! No offence intended.”
“And none taken,” said the other, and her smile was quite beguiling. Sarah was intrigued, not just by the beauty of her companion but by the aura of sadness that hung about her, the blue eyes that did not quite melt into the smile. A widow, perhaps, seeking new sights to distract her from her sorrow?
“I had no idea I would run into anyone from home in this place,” the woman was saying. “Have you lived here for long?”
“In Briesau for a year and a half,” replied Sarah, “but we’ve only been in this house for six months. But there are plenty of other English people here,” she added, “and other nations too. There’s a Sanatorium up on the Sonnalpe, just across the lake,” she pointed, “run by an English doctor, and here in Briesau there’s an English school, just a little distance up the valley. We’ve people from England, France, Norway, Hungary, America - and Austria, of course.”
“A school?” A flash of fear in her companion’s eyes, swiftly concealed, almost before Sarah noticed, behind a look of polite interest. “What a lovely place to have a school! And does your…husband teach there?” she essayed, and Sarah chuckled.
“I’m not married,” she said. “I’m here with my brother. But yes, he does teach there. I do as well, as a matter of fact - Italian - except that it’s still the holidays just now so I’ve nothing in particular to do. But look - tell me your name and I’ll take you up there one day and introduce you to my colleagues. They’re very nice girls, and it’s always pleasant to meet people while on holiday, don’t you think? My name is Denny - Sarah Denny.”
Sarah was not entirely surprised to see her companion back away slightly at this suggestion, but she put her hand into Sarah’s with a half-smile.
“Con Stewart,” she said. “But I don’t know how long I’ll be in the area - I mean to do some climbing all around the Tyrol, so I’m not staying in any one place for long.”
“Well, you know where I live if you change your mind,” said Sarah.
“Thank you,” said Miss Stewart. “Anyway, you’re busy - I’ll not keep you any longer. I’d better go and find the Bärenbad before it gets dark!”
“And I’d better get back to my forsythia,” said Sarah. “A relic of the former tenants, and I’m rather in two minds over whether to keep it here and work round it, or pull it out and start again.”
“Oh, keep it,” said Miss Stewart with a sudden smile. “It’s looking so pretty, now that it’s spring.”
“Hmm.” Sarah eyed the yellow-flowered bush with some suspicion. “Maybe I will - we’ll see. Right, back to it. It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Stewart - and do please call round if you change your mind.”
“I’ll be sure to,” replied Miss Stewart. “Good afternoon, Miss Denny - and thank you.”
Sarah watched her disappear along the path up the valley with a thoughtful gaze. There was an air of quiet recklessness in Miss Stewart’s movements, her face, her whole self - and of course, that indefinable melancholy. Something had happened to this woman, but she knew instinctively that Miss Stewart was not going to give up the secret lightly. And yet, in spite of her distaste of gossip, and of prying, Sarah was secretly intrigued.
“I wonder what she’s running away from?” she said to herself. “For running away she is, and she’s worried she’s not left it behind. And so pretty a girl, too. What could have happened to make her look so anxious?”
But there were no answers to her questions, and so, rather reluctantly, she put them aside, and turned back to her garden.