Echt Tiroler

MY first day settled the problem. I must, obviously, dress as did the inhabitants of the country. For years my insistently persuasive family had been informing me that one of the delights of the Austrian Alps lay in the opportunity they afforded for curtailed clothing, and I had consequently arrived with the staid expectation of seeing an abundance of bare knees and open throats. But my first day assured me that fashions had changed; only the most venerable appeared in garb so modest. When I caught my first glimpse of a Tyrolese climber, I thought him on the point of bathing in the stream that tumbled down out of the rocks, and I wondered that even a hardy mountaineer should choose such frigid water for purposes of cleanliness.

I came nearer and looked at him — a magnificent type, tall, sturdy, with bronzed legs, bronzed chest, bronzed back, and a halo of bright hair. ‘ Grüss Gott,' said he, while I, not to be outdone in civility, gave the proper echo. We conversed as amicably as my lack of German would permit, and I gathered that he also intended to go over the Arzler Scharte to the Pfeiss Hütte. We could go in company. I waited for him to don the remainder of his clothes, but he slipped on only a battered rucksack which had been sharing his rest. Aha! I thought, I have heard of this! There are Germans who have made a fetish of the nude, who attribute all manner of cures and preventions to the sun.

Off we went, toilsomely and slowly up the creaking, sliding shale, and I began to grow very hot. My companion appeared to find the sun exhilarating; the sweat played on that Grecian torso, the beads glistened like diamonds, but he was unconscious of the heat. We greeted other climbers; they were all of a sartorial persuasion like my friend’s; I admired the brown skin and wondered whether I myself had a capacity for producing anything so picturesque. But the heat was the true cause. That night, tired but eager, I purchased in Innsbruck a pair of the altogether proper Hosen and fittingly decorated suspenders to support them.

The next day was Sunday, and such a morning as might have moved even Dr. Johnson to an admiration of the country. The sky was Italian, and north from the Brenner came the softest of breezes. It was manifestly the day for the beginning of my exposure. Extremes are bad, I had learned from Aristotle; I would carry along a shirt to shield my pallid back, should I find that expedient. And so, very early on this most perfect of mornings, feeling as if I were entering some eccentric bagnio, I emerged into the village.

Did Tyrolese maidens eye me from sheltered balconies? I know not, but I felt as if all the lady retainers of the late Kaiser were finding in me a thrilling exhibit. I am confident that a blush traversed me from top to toe, and most of it must have been visible. The duty of the adventurous, however, is to be unashamed; and, even though I had not the figure of an Homeric hero, I could at least walk proudly.

And proudly I walked, gathering speed as I went, up a steep serpentining path, through the most entrancing of spruce woods, but I was too conscious of other things to notice, at that time, how infinitely graceful was the drooping of the streaming boughs. A few heavily robed priests who were descending from the Hungerburg seemed to compare their garb with mine, but our passing was too hasty to admit of conversation. And then suddenly I found myself—only the most complete self-absorption could have prevented my seeing them before — in the midst of a procession. Full twenty novices they were, out from the convent to enjoy this blessed morning. They walked two by two, chanting softly as they moved, and in their van plodded two stolid, dignified nuns. My speed had been terrific, and I had passed the first three or four pairs before I realized that here was an entire brigade; the path was narrow, and I was caught, a miserable satyr locked between Christian barriers.

My flesh, which was all too obvious, positively crept. The virgins behind chanted no longer; instead, there came from them a note of unmistakable merriment. Had they been other than religious, I should have thought it a tittering. The virgins in front began sedately to turn their heads, and soon the chant entirely ceased. So complete an interruption of that solemn measure disturbed the dragons of the vanguard, and my presence was discovered. Two withering glances fell upon me, each enough to have blasted Pan himself. Three months of sun could not have given me the color those glances produced. They were quick and peremptory, and they included the whole body of tittering novices, who formed swiftly into a single line, leaving me with barrier neither fore nor aft. I hastened, but the line was interminable, and I fear that when finally I passed the two Amazons I was indulging in what must have been considered a sprint.

After so fell a calamity, meditation was sweet, and I pondered, as I hurried on toward the Hungerburg, the advantages and the so signal disadvantages of the semi-nude state. Physically, there was no denying that it was delightful; mentally, it could lead to discomfort. However, man can inure himself to custom, and my experience with this mode was young. Others had paved the way; I had only to follow. I thought, and the thought soothed my fears, of my companion on the Arzler Scharte and of his complete ignorance of modesty.

Now I had reached the Hungerburg, but its delights, even the most bürgerlich of beer gardens, should not attract me on this morning. The more serene pleasure of a distant Alm should be my goal. I smiled affably at a youth who might have been mistaken for a Malay and who seemed to be pitying my bodily pallor; and I reflected that soon there would be no reason for such natural sympathy. His one garment excited my envy; it exposed full two more inches of thigh than did mine.

After climbing a matter of several hundred feet I found myself at a charming spring in a clearing that lay entirely surrounded by gently whispering spruces. The grass, from which the dew was not as yet entirely gone, was so fresh and crisp that I accepted its invitation and lay down for the comfort of a cigarette. The solitude was delicious— there was no sound save the cool bubbling of the water and the breathing of the trees. Here I could just be; here I could give myself up to the simple enjoyment of feeling the sun enter into my flesh, of feeling it burn slowly and warmly along the whole expanse of calf and thigh and chest. I need not even think; I could just be, and in such being lay the remote and untouched highest sense of the exquisite.

But alas! such pleasures are not for the deserving. I had hardly begun to light my cigarette when the stillness was pierced by a strident female voice, the intonation of which was unmistakable. I was suddenly and sharply reminded of many another voice that I had heard on the western side of the Atlantic; here in this Alpine fastness was one certainly from the Middle West, probably from Kansas City. Propping myself on one elbow, I watched her appear out of the path that led up the mountain. She was large and matronly, her features blunt and heavy, her clothes too tight and of too many colors, and she was not alone. In her wake followed a diminutive man in spectacles and a Palm Beach suit. She headed straight for the spring with an abandon that would have been more graceful in a gazelle, hurled herself on the ground, arched her stubby neck, and drank. The man waited patiently until her gurglings had ceased and her handkerchief had appeared to wipe away the water that had cooled her chin, then he with more decorum took from his pocket a folding aluminum cup and proceeded to satisfy his own desires.

At this moment her glance, sweeping the clearing, found me, propped on my elbow. Her stare was long and unfaltering, and the appearance it had was of Mrs. Grundy herself. I felt, before I heard, what was coming. ‘Harry, look here! Here’s another. Seven we’ve seen since breakfast. It ought to be stopped. Are there no ladies in this country? I knew Europe was wicked, but this is worse than Paris.’ The man acquiesced meekly and murmured something the purport of which I could not hear. She began again. ‘Something ought to be done about it. It’s shocking,’ and the hard stare went on uninterrupted.

My mind misgave me; she might guess my nationality, and how could I escape? The best plan was certainly to lie quiet, but I squirmed within. Drawing herself up, a look of noble determination in her eyes, she started for me. ‘I shall speak to him,’ she announced. I closed my eyes and fearfully waited. The strain, however, was too great. Up went my eyelids, and there she was, towering above me.

‘Young man, this is an outrage. It’s indecent, and you ought to know better.’

I did my best to look Teutonic, smiled as genially as I could under the circumstances, gave a hearty ‘Grüss Gott,' and faltered out the necessary ’Ich verstehe nicht.’

‘Harry,’ she shouted, ‘he does n’t understand me! You talk to him.’

There was some relief in this; he looked full as terrified as I. But she continued towering above me; obviously something must be done. I stood up, and of course one strap of the suspenders slipped over my shoulder, endangering the safety of its dependency, but that peril was quickly averted.

Harry came up slowly, discomfort marked in his every movement. ‘What shall I say?’

‘Tell him he ought to wear some clothes.’

Harry tried to look at me, but his courage failed, and his remarks were addressed solely to the grass on which I had been lying. What those remarks were I was not to learn; it was enough to know that they were in a German such as matched not my understanding. I simulated, however, a reverent attention, and, when the sermon was ended, bowed with as much ease as I could summon both to the fastidious lady and to her amiable consort, and then, with a grateful ‘Danke schön’ and another ‘Griiss Gott,' hastily departed from the neighborhood of the Tischbrunnen. The defender of the proprieties watched my withdrawal with unwavering eyes; she had lost, and was going to lose, no part of this exhibition.

After this harrowing episode it behooved me, I decided, to find some lessfrequented paths, at least until my sensibilities were hardened to the strain to which they were so often to be exposed. But would they ever be able to cope with the difficulties? Were centuries of a too self-conscious ancestry going to keep me from the enjoyment of this innocent pastime? A thousand doubts assailed me, and my steady resolution of the morning grew more and more feeble. I had visions of future embarrassments, each more distressing than the last, with my insuperable modesty never relenting. Yes, it would be best never again to brave the stares of the curious; even those of the incurious were too disconcerting. Better the heat and the discomfort; to-morrow I would be myself, and for the moment I could put on my shirt, brought to shield me from the sun, but useful as protection from what was more disturbing.

During these reflections I had been following a thoroughly idyllic path, one that wound with sudden curves and unending declivities through the dense cool trees. The air was redolent with the smell of evergreens and sharp with that indefinable tang that one gets only in the Alps. Now the path burst out of the woods, and there, far below, was the whole valley of the Inn, spread out from Zirl to Hall, and the Italian peaks purple in the distance. The air was different. Here was still the tang of the mountains, but the breeze was warm, and the sun came into one through every pore. My resolution was weakening; such luxury — it was hardly luxury through the armor of a complete costume — could not be surrendered. No, I would consider again. Off came my shirt, and I sat down, intent on convincing myself that nakedness was worth its price. I think I should have succeeded anyway, — my mind was clearly set toward such a conviction, — but, be that as it may, a kindly providence sent me the example that put all my doubts to flight.

Voices approached, jovial voices that certainly augured no stern reforming spirit, and there came along the path two young men (I hope they had met my friends from Kansas City) who were completely innocent, except so far as they carried them in their hands, of every garment. I gasped, and felt slightly perhaps as my advisers of the Tischbrunnen had felt on seeing me, but I schooled myself to this new phenomenon. They strode along to where I was sitting, greeted me with perfect politeness, and sat down to ask me the usual questions. I gave them cigarettes, talked to them, and when they had been informed concerning the relative prices of things in America and Austria they withdrew, each shaking me by the hand and calling dowm upon me the blessings of the Divinity. There was no apology for their appearance, no hint that they had even so much as thought of the absence of those necessities so vital in Kansas City.

Here, assuredly, was the echt Tiroler, and a good sort he was. Should I, too, force those convictions of mine to their logical end? Should I, too, be an echt Tiroler ? No; that, even in those parts inhabited only by goats, would require an abandon and a simplicity that my ancestors had certainly not bequeathed to me. But of this I was convinced: that, henceforth in Tirol, I could and would be a halb Tiroler.