The Grand Hôtel du Mont Cervin was a pensione perched improbably on a rocky ledge on the Italian slopes of the great Matterhorn in the village of Giomein. Despite its many comforts, it would be hard to imagine a more remote or isolated place, situated as it was high above the tree line at 2097 meters, pelted with icy blasts and frequently fogged in by the passing clouds, and it is here that the short story “The Oak and the Flower” is set. Starting in the early 1900s, this out-of-the-way hotel became a very fashionable retreat for visitors from around the world. One of the reasons for its popularity was that the writer Edmondo De Amicis (1846-1908) spent many of his summers in this mountain aerie, and he began to write about the hotel and those who frequented it. The Hotel Giomein (as it was also known) was renowned as a starting place for those who wanted to ascend the rocky slopes of the Matterhorn or any of the other peaks in the vicinity, but other visitors came to seek the healing effects of the astringent mountain air, to hike over the Alpine meadows or simply to enjoy the rugged scenery. To De Amicis the rambling mountain inn was a microcosm where the guests might represent both the heights and depths of human behavior.

The remote hotel was an oasis of luxury in an unforgiving and savage landscape, and although it was usually full of guests, it was not easy to get to. Visitors took the train from Turin to Aosta and descended at the Châtillon station; from there a coach would take travelers to the end of the road; after that there would be a grueling three-hour ride on the back of a mule to ascend the mountain trails. Giomein’s splendid isolation came at the cost of a long trip and an aching backside. Fortunately, the hotel was cozy, hospitable and very civilized; at its height of fortunes in the early 1900s its pine-paneled dining room could accommodate 200 people. A large piazzetta extended from the hotel, and here guests could sit at tables or lounge on deck chairs. There was a telescope set up on the courtyard in which visitors could keep track of the various expeditions up the mountainside. If climbers started on the Swiss side of the mountain in Zermatt, they could usually make it over the rough trails in around 48 hours, but danger was always present, and sometimes climbers succumbed to the ice, crevasses or bad luck as they passed over the mountain. Death was an unwelcome but occasional guest at the hotel. It was death that first brought Edmondo De Amicis to the hotel in June of 1902.

For many years Edmondo De Amicis was the most popular writer in Italy. His novel Cuore [Heart] established his fame from its first appearance in 1886. This was the story of a nine year-old schoolboy who takes the first steps on the way to manhood thanks to his lessons, his interactions with his schoolmates and the loving attention of his wise father. The close bond between the main character and his father is one of the key ingredients in the novel, and much of that relationship was based on that of the author with his own sons, Furio and Ugo—but Furio had long been his father’s favorite, so his death late in 1898 was a very cruel blow to the entire family. To make matters worse, the 21 year-old Furio had committed suicide by shooting himself in the neck in a Turin park. Each member of the family dealt with this tragedy in different ways: Furio’s mother descended into mental instability and an early grave, the father retreated into depressed solitude and inactivity, but his younger brother sought relief in mountain-climbing. It was Ugo who helped his father rebuild his life and start living and writing again, and one of the ways he did this was to take him to the slopes of the Matterhorn and the hotel at Giomein. So starting in 1902 and for nearly every remaining summer of his life, De Amicis and son would take the arduous trek up the mountain to the hotel where they found comfort, quiet and conviviality.
Although De Amicis was the most famous, he was certainly not the only visitor to the hotel. Some of the well-heeled guests came to enjoy the mountain scenery, others to attempt an ascension of the nearby peaks, but some came to escape the miasmas, heat and humidity of lower altitudes. One of these consumptive refugees is depicted in “The Oak and the Flower.” Silvia is near death from tuberculosis, and the only relief that she (and other fellow sufferers) could get was in the wholesome, dry atmosphere. Unfortunately, Silvia is beyond the healing powers of even the purest mountain air, but she and her loving father try to get the most out of whatever is left of her life—a life to which she desperately clings the closer she approaches her own end. She is especially saddened because she has never enjoyed the feelings of love. Until, that is, she encounters the famous alpinist Alberto Körner.

To the guests of the hotel, Körner is an almost mythical figure. Many have heard of him and his exploits, but none have actually seen him; he is portrayed as strong, virile, handsome and fearless—a godlike man who descends from the heights to sojourn for a while among the mortals in the hotel. Unfortunately, this nimbus of glory is dimmed by the fact that he carries with him a secret, inner sadness over some great loss that is never revealed. Körner is apparently an amalgam of several different real-life people. The most obvious one is Julius Kugy (1858-1944), the great Triestine mountaineer who was famous for his activities in the Julian Alps, but who also traversed many mountain trails in Italy, France and Switzerland. Kugy was also a poet and botanist of considerable talent; significantly, he was instrumental in cultivating the rare and beautiful scabiosa trenta, a flower that grows only at great altitudes. Another possible model for the fictional climber is the Italian Guido Rey (1861-1935). This great alpinist met and became close friends with De Amicis and his son while they all stayed at the hotel in Giomein. Rey was a talented photographer as well as an eloquent writer and authored Il Monte Cervino [The Matterhorn] (1908) one of the best histories of the peak and those who attempted to climb it. A third possible basis for the story’s protagonist is the author himself. Although he was certainly no mountain climber, Edmondo De Amicis, like the fictional character, harbored a deeply felt pain within his heart. The mountain (as the author later expressed it) could be both a stairway to heaven as well as a calvary. A great deal of the author’s melancholy seeps into the veins of poor Körner and permeates his love for the beautiful but doomed Silvia. She (like Furio) is just 21 years old and at the start of what should have been a happy and productive life.

Körner and Silvia thus represent the two great forces of the story: love and death—Eros and Thanatos—Venusberg and Zauberberg. The physical vigor, the pride and virile beauty of Alberto Körner (who lives in a state of perfect communion with nature) is contrasted with the image of the withered and exhausted body of the girl. And yet she is still able to glow temporarily with the flame of love—a precious flame that will soon consume whatever vitality she has left. The surrounding mountain pinnacles are symbols of nature’s beauty and magnificence, but also its ultimate indifference. The Alpine crags can give us a temporary refuge far from the problems of the lowlands, but they can offer little more. Their rocky granite cliffs afford little help when confronted with the fleetness and fragility of human life that ebbs and flows on their flanks. Both the sturdy oak and the delicate flower must eventually bend to the fate that will be visited equally upon man, beast and plant.

The Oak and the Flower

by Edmondo De Amicis
translated by David Chapman

Everyone in the little group at the Hotel Giomein cheered when a guide from Valtournanche, returned from Zermatt; he brought news that would have arrived the next day: the mountain climber Alberto Körner from Trieste was going to conquer the Matterhorn without guides.[1] Few people had ever seen him, but everyone knew who he was. For more than ten years he had been known in all the alpine resorts of Italy and Switzerland since he had left from each one for some great ascension, or he had descended into one after conquering a mountain. And what many (with a degree of imagination) who knew of him said that he was a sad and solitary man who risked his life in the Alps in order to forget a great family tragedy (some said to seek death), and that he had suffered long hours at the bottom of an icy abyss on Mont Blanc from which he had been extracted near death, and that by a miracle of courage and devotion, he had saved a fallen comrade from an avalanche on Monte Rosa. All this increased everyone’s desire to know him or to see him again. That evening at the three large tables in the dining room the talk was of nothing but him.

Knowing that he had to leave from the Swiss hotel at the Schwarzsee at the stroke of midnight and that he would have to make the ascension and the descent in one fell swoop, and knowing his marvelous speed and stamina, they expected that he would arrive at Giomein around sunset. And everyone anticipated the pleasure that we would have the next day when we would spy his appearance on the summit with our telescopes and accompany him on his descent and finally see him up close when he entered the hotel in triumph.

But the next morning was a disappointment. The sky was overcast, the Matterhorn hooded—that entire amphitheater of white pyramids, black rocks and gigantic stairway of ice was covered with a gray veil behind which everything seemed vague and gloomy, as if in a dream. Körner had not departed or at any rate should have stopped at the hut on the Matterhorn, and he would not be visible on the last part of his descent.

For the moment no one spoke of him any more, and at the midday meal the principal topic of discussion was a odd and ungainly English lady who had just arrived on a mule, and when she dismounted in front of the door crowded with onlookers, it was found that her petticoats had become stuck on the saddle and she thus displayed from her waist to her knees a pair of flaming red drawers. Then and there she was she was awarded the name of the winged insect with the fiery abdomen.[2]

They were having coffee when a waiter brought them the news: Körner had arrived.

The announcement of the arrival of a monarch would not have given the eighty diners a more powerful shock. First the ladies and then the gentlemen rushed out of the hotel, and they all faced the slopes of the Matterhorn. There they formed a semicircle all facing the mountain, looking with eager gazes on the lower green slopes for the expected guest.

He could not be seen anymore; he had descended into the big river valley. But he reappeared several minutes later, looking like a small, lonely black dot on a grassy rise. This is the moment when a mountaineer returning from a daring exploit appears to be all the more admirable as a result of the comparison between the paltry smallness of his person still in the distance and the terrible enormity of the mountain that dominates. In this case the man was alone and had conquered the Matterhorn in dreadful weather, and he had made this difficult and danger-filled journey in twelve hours, whereas even the most vigorous climbers would have done it in twenty. It was as if he were enveloped in a sort of miraculous aura, like one of those warriors in fairy tales who alone defeats an army and captures a kingdom. When his form approached and got bigger, the crowd of onlookers lowered their voices, focusing their gaze as the gap narrowed between themselves and where he had to pass.

When he was close enough so that they could even distinguish his face, everyone fell silent with astonishment.

He was a colossus of savage beauty, and he had a fine physique: he had herculean musculature, but with elegance, and his alpine garb (though rough and worn) showed his form to great effect. His face was burnt by the sun and the winds, and despite a severe and mature expression, his youthful blood and daring soul flashed forth unmistakably. As the figure of a man can conjure up the image of a mountain, his did so. And his handsome dark face with its ancient Roman features, owing to his great fatigue at that time had a hard, almost grim expression, as if to exclaim, “What a big scoundrel!” and at another time, “I was born in a ravine on the Matterhorn!” And to see the looks that he shot from under those great frowning eyebrows—everyone thought that he was irritated by the curiosity that he provoked. But when he arrived at the little stairway that leads from the meadow to the level area of the hotel, he stopped to remove the rucksack from his back, and he turned his gaze on the people as if he were looking for a friend; this was a new revelation for everyone. In that tranquil gaze, that had not the slightest hint of pride or vanity, it was as if the people were there to look at the mountain, not him. He flashed an expression of great goodness obscured by sadness; and that unexpected demonstration of a modest and benevolent mind in the fierce aspect of an alpine athlete immediately aroused in all a lively sympathy and a deep respect.

His glance rested on one person.

He had looked to the side and seen not a face but two eyes that had attracted his. There is not a one of us who occasionally has seen only two eyes, and for a moment we can see nothing else of the person who stares at us in the face as if their eyes shine in an invisible body. These two eyes presaged something new in Körner’s life, like two luminous words written in the air that gave him a mysterious message in an unknown language and to which his soul responded with a confused echo. They were two large eyes of a sad, sick young lady, astonished by something unusual which suspended the sense of mortality in her. He stared at the eyes, and they looked away. He descended the stairs, and passing between two rows of people who were almost close enough to touch him, he entered the hotel and disappeared.

It was thought that he would depart; he stayed. But he did not correspond to the hopes of the curious beau monde. They expected marvelous stories of his Alpine adventures, but he said nothing of such things. He did not run away from company, but he spoke little, dined separately and was alone as much as possible. Because of their annoyance, they would have treated anyone else who behaved like that as an imposter or some sort of wild beast. But there was so much nobility in that tanned face bristling with prematurely gray hair, and his sadness seemed so sincere, he replied so gently to every greeting or kind word. Then there was his powerful physical presence, with his head sticking up above every one and just about every thing; he had a way that was so gracious of stepping aside and giving a slight bow to everyone he met along the corridors and stairways, rather like a great tree bent by the wind. And every day the initial feelings of sympathy and admiration that he inspired increased rather than diminished. But of all this he showed no notice; at table it appeared that he did not see anyone. Nevertheless, someone was watching him. From time to time when he looked up in front of him, at the opposite side of the room through the araucaria boughs that were in the middle of the table, he saw the two large, sad eyes that he had noticed at his arrival. But they were no longer as he had seen them then, almost glowing in the air like the eyes of some spirit; rather, he saw them sparkling, misting over, then sparkling again; he saw them thinking and dreaming in a thin pale face of snowy whiteness that seemed to contrast with the jet-black hair that crowned her head and the two small scarlet flowers that rested atop the hollow cheeks and that seemed to be traces of two fiery kisses.

And every time that he directed his gaze between the branches of the araucaria, he encountered those eyes, and every time he met them, he saw them dart aside quickly, and a moment later they returned to look at him and then flee again like two flames that are continually ignited and extinguished. And those two blue flames were the only things that were alive and youthful in that face in which youth seemed to peer out through a mask of weary and pensive maturity.

Twenty-one years old and no more hope; so it was not a last hope in the virtue of that pure air that caused them to take her up here. Rather, it was a desire to live again one more time amidst those great mountains that ever since she was a healthy and robust young girl she had gone many times with her father, a great lover of the Alps, who had filled her soul with a thousand bright memories, with a passionate love and a deep longing. No hope now; this was confirmed by the face of the old man who sat next to her, a former magistrate who was once quite renowned among the mountaineers of his time. He had one of those jaded, resigned faces on which the expectation of some future misfortune (rather than some present pain) seems unavoidable. But she was not yet resigned. Her slender, pallid neck was bent under the cruel hand of fate, curving her tall and exhausted body—a body that still retained as much beauty as an airy white-gowned sylph—which seemed only to have the left the empty and exhausted forms of those curves. But in her soul there still trembled the desire for life, a final blaze of desperate youth, the rebellious force of a love without an object—unconscious and burning—that would not die. As if in a dream, something still smiled and from time to time her large eyes, that most often simply stared off into the void as if gazing at some ominous apparition, were filled with infinite weariness as if she might never again recover. And that undetermined image which she had hitherto smiled on, unexpectedly took shape here and now. To her, from whom the measured powers and forces of life had fled, he appeared to be the personification of strength and life. For her he had the appeal of a monarch of that Alpine world that she had loved so keenly; it was a world that she wanted to recapture once again and which had been barred to her forever. He was for her the very image of that lonely and terrible beauty, full of mystery and melancholy that had captured the young girl’s soul and whose memory was still the sweetest solace of her future-less youth.

Körner was melancholy, brave, generous and middle aged. For him, this was a time in life which still retained the splendor of youth but already has the austerity of the old age—rather like those mountains that are immersed in shadows but with their peaks gilded by the light of the setting sun which is warmer and more beautiful than the dawn. She felt sentiments of tenderness and filial reverence for him that would have made her lay her head on his chest in the vain hope that he could afford her some sort of superhuman protection. And with that thought, she discovered that there was a feeling growing in her heart that was all the more passionate because it was hopeless and because as her heart opened to this new life, it was even more painful because it came at the end of life. And this feeling expressed itself in an idea that arose constantly in her mind: she wanted to go with him up to the top of the Matterhorn—any way possible: dragged up like a lifeless corpse, carried by him or by others—and to die up there with her forehead resting on his chest, and then be buried in a hollow in the rocks. Every year he would climb up there and bring her flowers. When she looked at him with this thought in her head, everything that remained in life, all the dreams and youthful regrets, all her goodness and all of her misfortunes, all the despair in her soul were in her eyes.

He understood and felt sorry for her, but he avoided her gaze and took care not to come near when she was in a group or when she was with her father. He thus never encountered her face to face. And she too avoided him when outside of the dining room; however, she could not avoid looking at him, for even if she had wanted to, she could never miss him. He towered over the other men as if he were a member of some superior race, and if a smile appeared on his wind-burned face it was like a flash of lightning striking a rock, so strongly did his stern features stand out amongst the pale and cheerful faces of those around him that he always seemed alone and distant from the thoughts of others. She watched him from the little piazza of the hotel as he stood alone on the large terrace, silhouetted like a colossal bronze statue against the glacier of Mont Tabel; she saw him like a quivering little dot as he climbed up the snow to the top of the Great Wall of the Alps with a speed that was so reckless it even caused the guides down below to tremble. But thanks to the comments of others and the remarks of newcomers who sought him out, even when she could not see him she was always reminded of his image as if he were reflected from a hundred mirrors.

And likewise for him, it was not love but pity that caused him to think of her a hundred times, even when he wanted to rid her from his thoughts. Those sudden blasts of air that sometime blow down from the Matterhorn and that feel as if they had been expelled from some massive chest made him think of the poor panting breath of life bursting out of those feeble lungs in a fatal cough. The stars that shine along the crest of the mountains like flames above the rocks and then a moment later are hidden from view, suggested to him the image of those great flaming eyes that would soon be extinguished. The beautiful ladies, so vigorous and florid, returning from their morning excursions, caused him to turn his thoughts with a sense of painful tenderness to those poor arms through which one could see the bones as if they were covered in some transparent veil. Even when his thoughts were far from that place and from those people that he saw scudding suddenly in front of him as if they were clouds being swept away by the wind, he remembered that light white dress that hung nearly empty on her and under which was a heart that beat for him, and he was seized with a great tenderness as if for a daughter that he had found after many years and which he was going to lose again. Every now and then he suddenly sensed her gaze without even seeing her; it was like a hand that gently caressed him. Sometimes he heard the sound of her cough, and it caused him to fancy that her sadness pervaded the very air like the echo of a voice that continually bids adieu. And sometimes standing before the Matterhorn while searching with his eyes for the cross on the rocks of the Tête de Lion that was planted on the spot where the old guide Carrel had died, he imagined that she was already dead and that it was she who was buried under the cross.[3] There slept the poor “girl in white” (as he secretly called her) an unknown girl, because he knew nothing of her except her name—Silvia—he had heard her father calling to her one day. She was little more than a sad face seen in passing that had smiled and sighed at him; a dying girl who had loved him.

One morning under a clear and radiant sky, a group of ladies and girls wearing veils over their heads and hobnailed climbing boots and gentlemen and boys with walking sticks in hand and rifles slung over their shoulders milled around on the little piazza of the hotel amid a pack of mules with red saddles and porters with flowered hats who were loaded down with ropes and bags, all making a great din of shouts and laughter which covered up even the sound of the nearby stream. They were about to leave on a trip that had been planned for several days to the Teodulo Glacier. Miss “White” would not have had sufficient energy even to go halfway, and she had not accepted the invitation. She was at that moment in the reading room, alone, sitting on a chair which was always left to her, with a book in her hands, but she was not reading. While listening to the festive shouts and whoops, she felt a regret that in refusing the invitation she had not tried; she felt almost a reversal of her repentance or a bitter humiliation, much like a neglected child. She had a sudden temptation to get up, run out to the group and march off with them as well; she would make a violent effort, even if she might fall by the wayside and be brought back as a corpse. A bevy of young men and women glowing with health and happiness burst into the room to greet her. She thanked them, subduing her emotions, and with a sad smile said, “Enjoy yourselves! Have fun all of you. See you this evening. Off with you, now.” A voice called out, “Let’s go!” and the group moved out of the room noisily as they greeted friends at the windows, and a minute later there was a great silence as if no one was left in the whole hotel. Then a wave of anguish swept through her soul. She let the book fall, covered her face with her hands and remained in that unhappy position, suffocated in a knot of tears without being able to cry—wanting to die.

She heard footsteps in the hallway. She thought that it was a waiter, and she quickly pulled herself together, picked up the book, placed it open on her knees, and so that she might hide her emotions better, she leaned her head back and pretended to doze. The steps drew near, stopped a moment at the door, and then they came toward her stepping slower and more softly, and then stopped again. She dared not open her eyes for fear of revealing her pretense, but her heart was beating wildly. She heard the steps move away, and her blood stirred. It was he who walking away on tiptoes and with bowed head. She lowered her eyes in bewilderment, and saw on the open book an alpine rose. Oh, he had foreseen it all; he had sought her out and brought her a tear of pity and a word of comfort in the form of a rose! She gave a restrained cry of joy, but it issued from her mouth as a strangled cough. She smiled, brought her lips to the flower, and then amidst wheezing and coughing, the tears began to flow—unstoppable, fiery and sweet. It was as if Death which had gnawed away at her lungs had suddenly fled, overwhelmed by that wave of emotion; her white lips had regained their strength and the youthful hope from that single rose. She looked down smiling through her tears at the flower and did not see the blood that had been left there by her kiss.

After that, a passion blazed up in her like a flame that consumed her resurrected soul along with her devastated body. Hers was the secret joy of a private and hidden treasure, the silent adoration by a supplicant to the saint who had granted her mercy. It was a humble and continuous pursuit; the more futile the more intense it was. A single glance from him compensated her in a brief instant for an entire day of waiting. The trick was to get away when she began to cough so as not to distress him, and yet she felt satisfaction when she thought that when he heard her, he would feel even stronger pangs of pity. There was even a sweetness in the jealousy that she felt when she sometimes saw him talking with the pretty ladies who had sought him out; it was as if that jealousy in her mind was the affirmation and proof that she was right, and she was infinitely grateful to imagine that he avoided those encounters so as not to give her any unhappiness.

It was also a joy to cherish the fantasy, the dream (knowing it to be just a dream), that thanks to a miracle of nature he saved her, then love grew between them and they would have a future that was divinely happy. But she knew that this was impossible. It was an intoxicating thrill every time she glanced at the superb peaks that his feet had trod upon, to breathe the air that had filled his powerful and generous chest, to be kissed by the sun that had darkened his uplifted face, to be buffeted by the same wind that had ruffled the gray hair on the handsome face of this fearless conqueror of mountains. But amid all of these joys, there was an increasing terror in her heart at the thought of the approaching day of her own and his departure. This feeling became stronger from day to day as did the contrast between an ardent desire to approach him or talk to him, the temptation to satisfy this desire with a strange and daring act, and an insurmountable fear, a terror that nearly caused her to accomplish that deed (which she would never have done otherwise) and let him know her feelings in no uncertain terms. And amongst all these loving and frantic thoughts, she still returned most often and with deeper sweetness, like a divine retreat from her first imaginings, to being taken by him to the peak of the great mountain and to die there, feeling the beat of his heart and the sound of his voice, of being buried up there far away from the world, where he would come back every year to lay a rose on her grave covered by Alpine snow, bathed every day with the first and the last rays of the sun.

And then almost unexpectedly the last night came to betray them. He had to leave at midnight for the ascent of the Dent d’Hérens from whence he would descend into the Valpelline Valley. She knew that he would not return. And he knew that the “girl in white” was leaving the next morning. Where to? Wherever she went, it would be toward autumn and to winter, both of which awaited her in the plain like a mortal enemy lying in ambush.

That evening she came to the concert by the band of a battalion of Alpini [soldier-mountaineers] who had been camped for two days just below the Hotel Giomein. They put on their tattoo in the little piazza of the hotel where the officers had dined; at intervals they played cheerful tunes and popular songs amidst a crowd of ladies and gentlemen, soldiers, guides and children who were in groups or strolled about under a crystal-clear sky in which were deeply engraved by the thousand black dots of the mountain chain of the Matterhorn which was crowned with stars. The entire hotel staff was outside; there was no one left inside. She was with her father in a corner of the little piazza leaning against a pillar of the balustrade, and from there she searched for him in the crowd with growing consternation. She looked at the windows, down the slope, hoping to send him a final greeting of love and desperation, but he was not there. The window of his room was closed and dark. Maybe it was his intention not to let her see him any more. This she believed. For her he was already gone, already far away and lost to her forever. All at once this thought took possession of her in in her imagination it was as if a spectral being was squeezing her neck in an attempt to suffocate her with one hand and was poised to tear out her heart with the other. She snapped out of this with a jolt, and immediately felt the need to escape, to go and close the door of her room behind her as if it were a sepulcher. She said to her father, “I’m going to get a shawl,” and passed through the crowd quickly. With whatever strength that remained to her, she dashed up the stairs.

The stairway and corridors were deserted, and the building seemed abandoned. She climbed to the second floor and paused on the landing to catch her breath and then rushed into the hall to the left. It was lighted toward the middle by a single lamp. But just as she was a step from the door, she stopped dead in her tracks. Körner’s great hulking form came toward her, his head nearly touching the ceiling and his elbows the walls. She could barely see his eyes gleaming in his dark face, and she did not have the strength to evade him. He bent his head and stood waiting, trembling. He stopped a pace away from her and took off his hat. She heard his powerful and soothing voice.

“Miss . . .Are you leaving tomorrow? She did not understand at first. A moment later she answered yes with a nod.

“I am leaving tonight.” She wanted to tell him that she knew, but she could not, so she replied with another nod without raising her face.

He replied softly, slowly and with great tenderness, “One day at a very sad time in my life on the Dent du Requin far above the glacier where I thought that not even a blade of grass would grow, I found a little flower—only one—so delicate and alone among those rocks. It did not seem to me that it sprang from the earth but must have fallen from the sky. I stopped to look at it. It almost reminded me of a friend; it moved me as if it were a greeting, a smile from some kindly soul. I kept on climbing, but I did not forget it—I will never forget it. As long as I live, as long as I climb mountains, in all the highest and most remote places, I will keep going with the thought of that flower. And now it seems that I have found it again, and I will always think back to the tenderness and gratitude that awoke in my heart the first time I saw it.”

The girl clasped her hands.

“Silvia!” Körner said.

She trembled all over as if he had touched her. In a paternal gesture, he put his hand on her head.

Her strength failed, and she fell to her knees.

He quickly picked her up by the arms and placed his lips on her forehead. He then felt that thin body shudder with a sudden and violent motion, he saw her head fall back, and her eyes stared into his with a luminous expression of beseeching prayer and ecstatic love. It was the kiss of love that she asked for, the first and the last that she would ever have. It was the only thing that would embellish her death and that she could take to her grave as the only flower plucked from a miserable life.

“Oh, Silvia!” he exclaimed. “My poor child!” And he lowered his head toward her. And then those two poor, thin arms entwined themselves around his herculean neck with the strength of two bands of steel, and a long kiss on the dying girl’s quivering mouth stifled a sob of despair and divine joy.

He pulled away and said, “Go now, child!”
She went away.
At midnight he sadly departed for the mountains. She descended to the plain with a new light in her eyes and where winter awaited her like an enemy in ambush. He went away to find forgetfulness; she to find death.

[1] Character based on Julius Kugy. See introduction for additional information.
[2] This refers to the lucciola or lightning bug, a commonly used name for a prostitute. Here it is used in a jocular sense. [3] Jean-Antoine Carrel (1829 –1891) was perhaps the most famous Italian mountain guide in the region. He died from exhaustion after guiding a group of climbers to safety down the south side of the Matterhorn.


David Chapman

was born in San Diego, California in 1948. He is the author of thirteen books on the history of physical culture, gender, film and sport history. In 1994 he published Sandow the Magnificent, a biography of the early bodybuilder Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). His book on female strength, Venus with Biceps (2011) was the first comprehensive history of muscular women ever published. In more recent years he... >>