by Hariolf Betz
When Carl Christian Ostergaard entered the spacious breakfast room of the Sanatorium Saint-Jérôme on a bright Saturday morning in the summer of 1904, he felt that the stabbing pain in his chest was getting worse again. Habitually, he forced his features into a jovial smile and crossed the room in a deliberately nonchalant manner as not to give away any of his suffering.
Mr. Ostergaard was a man of considerable wealth and considerable stature. He took some pride in being an early riser. Therefore, he was slightly annoyed to see that both his table companions, Miss Cecilia Vandervelde from Brussels and Mr. Philipp Howards from Cardiff, were already seated. When Carl Christian Ostergaard reached the table, he paused for a moment. Pretending to admire the magnificent view of the Bernese Alps that opened itself behind the panoramic windows, he waited for the pain to subside.
"Oh, Mr. Ostergaard, how good it is to see you!", Miss Vandervelde began in English, which was their usual language of conversation. "We were quite worried when you were not the first to be seated," she said with a charming smile, which he gratefully returned. As usual, she wore her curly dark hair neatly pinned up. Miss Vandervelde was spending the summer in the sanatorium to recover from a severe episode of polio. Although visibly making progress, she was confined to a wheelchair for the most part of the day. Despite this hardship, she kept her spirits up admirably.
"In fact," Miss Vandervelde continued, "it was me who was worried. Mr. Howards rather suspected that you might have overslept." Ostergaard frowned. "Did you, Mr. Howards?", he said in a mildly angry tone and eyed the younger man closely. Howards avoided his glance. "Well, not quite, Mr. Ostergaard," he replied hastly, "I merely said to Miss Vandervelde that we should not strictly rule out the possibility ..." He hesitated. There was an uneasy silence at the table. Howards was visibly uncomfortable and he nervously stroked his thin moustache.
Philipp Howards descended from a line of successful mining engineers. Unfortunately, he didn't live up to his heritage in the least. He was neither tall nor of strong built, a pale-faced man of feeble constitution. From what Ostergaard had gathered, he had lost his father at an early age. Henceforth, he had been raised by his mother and his aunt, which might partly explain his lack of poise and determination. Apart from a hopeless infatuation with books, Philipp Howards seemed to do literally nothing in his life: an attitude to which Ostergaard decidedly objected.
"So, tell us, Mr. Ostergaard," Miss Vandervelde said in a cheery tone, "what kept you?" Ostergaard thought for a moment. The fact was that he had indeed overslept. (This in turn was because an unusual agitation had kept him awake until the small hours of the morning.) Yet, under no circumstances would he confess to that in Howards' presence. "Well," he finally said, "I had some very important correspondence to send with the morning mail." He immediately regretted the lie as it occurred to him that the mail left only once a day from the sanatorium and that was in the late afternoon. "Oh, is that so?", Howards said wryly. "Indeed, Mr. Howards," Ostergaard growled, as he finally sat down.
Ostergaard did not enjoy Howards' company. Nevertheless, there were two reasons why he had to put up with him: Firstly, almost every one in the sanatorium seemed to be talking either French or German. Unfortunately, he understood little of the latter and nothing of the former. Secondly, Miss Vandervelde seemed to be rather fond of Mr. Howards. Possibly, Howards' boyish manners and appearance had aroused motherly feelings in her. This was despite the fact that she could hardly be his senior by more than a couple of years. (Of course, he had not enquired about this.) In any case, Ostergaard was ultimately faced with the choice of either being in the company of both or having his meals in solitude. Gloomily, he ate his breakfast while the others got lost in conversation.
The topic changed from the capricious weather of the Swiss alps over the wholesomeness of the local food to the delights of the French riviera in spring and finally to some obscure poet that Ostergaard had never heard of. Mr. Howards promised to join Miss Vandervelde on the sun terrace later in the day and read some poems to her. "Oh, that would be so lovely," Miss Vandervelde exclaimed.
"And what are your plans for today?", she adressed Ostergaard. "Will you join us for the reading?" Ostergaard was slightly startled at the suggestion. "Well, as much as I am grateful for the invitation, I'm afraid my daily exercise does not allow for such pastimes," he said, which was at least partly true. "So what are your plans, Mr. Ostergaard?" "Well, I suppose I will be going for my usual walk to those waterfalls I told you about." "Oh, that sounds wonderful, Mr. Orstergaard. I hope I will be able to come with you one day."
Turning back to Howards, she continued: "Oh, Mr. Howards, it seems so unfair that I make you stay in this boring place. Are you sure, you would not rather join Mr. Ostergaard on his walk?" Good heavens! Ostergaard's mind raced for excuses to prevent Howards from joining him. "I don't think I can go," Howards said curtly. Ostergaard suppressed a sigh of relief. "But why, Mr. Howards?", Miss Vandervelde asked. "Well, I told you," Howards muttered. He seemed to be uncomfortable with Ostergaard overhearing. Ostergaard, on his part, was highly alert. "Oh, it's your nightmare!", Miss Vandervelde said, and there was sincere compassion in her voice.
"Your nightmare!", Ostergaard bellowed. "Are you telling me, you had a bad dream?" "In fact, I have told Miss Vandervelde!" Howards glared defiantly. "Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Howards", Ostergaard replied smugly, "but such a thing is truly unheard of. Tell us about your dream, Mr. Howards!" There was a moment of silence, and Ostergaard was sure that Howards was about to stand up and leave the table. He was wrong.
"Well, Mr. Ostergaard," Howards began, "I've been having a recurring nightmare. It's about that wooden bridge about halfway to the waterfalls. Do you know which one?" "Well ... I think so," Ostergaard replied. He was slightly unsettled by Howards' sudden determination. "Every other night I dream about attempting to cross the bridge. However, about when I have halfway crossed the bridge, an enormous dog emerges on the other side. I cannot tell where it comes from, but it is suddenly there and blocks my way." "So you are afraid of dogs, Mr. Howards?" Ostergaard tried to smirk. "Not dogs in general, Mr. Ostergaard, but this one: yes! It's a large dog ... enormous. And it stares at me, it stares as if it can see right into my soul. And there's blazing hatred in its eyes. It quivers with hatred. It reeks of hatred." Howards' glance became piercing. "This dog is evil!" "Animals are never good or evil, Mr. Howards. They just follow their instincts." "This one, Mr. Ostergaard, is evil!"
Ostergaard swallowed. "So ... how does the dream end?", he asked after a moment of silence. "Most of the time, it ends just there," Howards replied. By the tone of his voice it was clear that he was not willing to tell any more.
Two hours later, Ostergaard was well on his way to the waterfalls. He followed a familiar trail winding uphill at a steady pace. He passed green pastures dotted with white and yellow flowers, ramshackle cottages of sun-bleached wood and cool patches of emerald forest. Every now and then he would cross a tiny creek that glittered in the morning sun. Then he would bend down, wet his handkerchief and dab his forehead. Sometimes he would pause to take in the view. At one of the latter occasions, he remarked dark clouds gathering in the sky above.
Howards' nightmare story was the most silly excuse for laziness he had ever heard, he told himself. Concededly, he didn't like dogs himself. He had even been bitten by one in his childhood. The scars still showed if one knew where to look. Yet, how a nightmare could stop a man from doing what he wanted was beyond him. He chuckled to himself as he picked up his pace.
It was well before noon when Ostergaard approached the wooden bridge, hidden in a patch of dense forest. Within less than an hour, the weather had notably cooled off and a blanket of grey clouds now shrouded the sun. The way up here had exhausted him more than usual. He decided to break his habits by taking a short rest. He sat down on a small wooden bench just in sight of the bridge.
A chilly wind had risen, gently swaying the dark fir trees lining his path. He shivered. Usually, the path was speckled with friendly patches of sunlight, but now as the sun was hidden behind heavy clouds, it seemed to disappear into black nothingness. He tried to trace the path with his eyes but the failing light made it too dark to see clearly.
Ostergaard felt uncomfortable. Howards' nightmare story had struck an unpleasant chord in him. Something about the account had aroused a disturbing sentiment. A sentiment that he had not felt in a long time. His gaze wandered back to the bridge. Now that his eyes had somewhat accustomed to the low light, he could make out some shapes on the other side: A whirling mass of black branches waving to and fro in the cold wind. And wasn't there something moving in the underbrush?
Surely, it was impossible to tell with the gloom of the forest and the wind-shaken undergrowth and the swiftly moving shadows. Ostergaard was a rational man and he know that his senses could trick him. In this wind, a thicket might shake as if stirred by a quickly moving animal. The shadow of a branch might look like a snout or a paw. A bunch of wild berries could appear to be snarled fangs. Yet, he had an intense feeling of being watched. And there was a musty smell in the air. (Of rotten wood and mushrooms, of course.)
He knew that there were sheperds in these mountains. He had come across one or two of them on earlier occasions. Despite not speaking their language, he had exchanged friendly greetings with them. The shepherds were usually accompanied by one or two sturdy Alsacian dogs. Occasionally, one of those dogs would run away or get lost, he figured. A friendly sheperd's dog would surely not scare him. Of course, Mr. Howard's story had not been about a sheperd's dog. Mr. Howard's story had been about something vile and evil. A truly boyish fantasy. Ostergaard would have a hearty laugh about it. If only the wind would not smell of a dog's breath.
Ostergaard realized that he could not sit idly for too long. He didn't want to catch a cold out here. Just when he got up, something caught his eye. Something stirred on the other side. Something large. His heart pounded. "Hello?" he called. Nothing to be heard but the wind. And nothing to be seen. (What had he seen?) He broke into cold sweat. Very slowly, he walked towards the bridge.
For a long time, he stood by the wooden railing and stared into the forest on the other side. But as much as he concentrated, he could not make out a definite shape in that roiling sea of branches. Or at least, none that he would allow himself to see. It was funny that the longer he gazed into the darkness, the more bizzare things his mind made appear. And the longer he stared into that thorny, black maelstrom, the more intense became the feeling of being watched. Someone, something was waiting for him.
"Most of the time, it just ends there."
It was well into the afternoon, and Ostergaard was back in his room. Although the weather had made him turn back early, it had taken him longer than usual to get back. Feeling a severe pain in his chest, he had called for a doctor. He had been given some stronger anaesthetics. Then Ostergaard had gone to bed to get some rest. Twice he had woken up covered in sweat from a nightmare he didn't remember. Now he wandered around the room, restlessly.
Outside, the sky was spotlessly blue. Ostergaard walked over to the window, where he steadied himself against the wooden sill. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he could see Miss Vandervelde and Mr. Howards in the garden. Apparently, Miss Vandervelde was getting better: She had linked her arms with Howards' and seemed to be walking almost on her own. Apparently, the two were engaged in vivid conversation. Ostergaard could not understand what they were talking about. He stood and watched until the two disappeared from his field of vision.
Diese Ausgabe ist zur Zeit leider vergriffen.