‘Time, gentlemen, please.’
Of course, Herr Steiner did not say that, for this was not a London pub but an Alpine inn - the very finest on the Tiernsee shore, or so the fat innkeeper would have you believe. But he polished a glass on his grubby apron and gave the young man at the corner table, who was bent almost double over his beer, a certain look, and the young man translated it thus in his head and lurched upwards, thrusting his chair back so hard that it hit the wall and rebounded with a clatter.
‘Ach, mein Herr,’ the innkeeper protested. ‘Must I add the repainting of my wall to your bill along with your beer?’
But he could see that, as ever, the young man was not listening; he grunted, slapped some coins onto the counter and ducked out of the low doorway to begin the long stagger home.
Herr Steiner watched him go with some pity, but no regret.
It was late summer in the Alps, and by day the sun was beginning to hang lower in the sky, though the leaves were still glossy green and the heat blazed as intense as ever. Even at night, when the sun had dipped behind the mountains and the stars glittered overhead, the temperature was uncomfortably warm and could stick a man’s shirt to his back and armpits more effectively than any adhesive, or so Jack Maynard felt as he came along the lake path from the direction of Seespitz, where he had been attending a patient. It was almost tempting to veer from the path and plunge fully clothed into the lake, and it was only the thought of Herr Braun’s face as he answered the door to a man both very late and sopping wet that stopped Jack from doing so - for it was too late to make it back up to the Sonnalpe tonight and he couldn’t afford to have the best hotelier on that side of the lake turn him away to sleep in the open air. He was tired and was looking forward to a late supper, a glass of wine and a soft feather bed for his night’s rest.
But he was destined to wait for both, for as he came on apace he saw, in the gloom ahead of him, another figure, shambling and stumbling and entirely unsteady, making his way in the same direction, towards Briesau. Jack groaned. A drunk - and his responsible conscience would not let him leave the man at the side of the road until he’d made the most strenuous efforts to find out where he lived and, if possible, to get him home. Not at all a task he relished, but one he would not shirk, especially given that…
Good grief! He’d fallen over. Well, that decided him - Jack hastened along the path towards the prone figure, who to his relief was still moving, and as he reached him and bent over him he recognised, with no little astonishment, his own rival in love, the man that Susie Smith had favoured above him, her beloved, her fiancé - Tristan Denny, singing master at the Chalet School, was lying on the lake path, dead drunk and laughing up at the sky.
It startled Jack out of all politeness.
‘Denny!’ he exclaimed, ‘what in God's name are you are doing?’
Denny’s eyes rolled and then focussed on Jack’s face and he blinked, slowly and comically.
‘Maynard,’ he said, in a voice that was disconcertingly conversational. ‘F'ncy seeing you here,’
‘Denny!’ growled Jack, and he took him by the arm and hauled him into a sitting position. ‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’
‘’M going home,’ said the singing master. He frowned, and added in a confidential undertone, ‘’S taking a…surprisingly long time.’
‘That’s because you’re sitting down,’ said Jack, and took a firm hold of the man and pulled him to his feet. ‘Good God, I never thought I’d see you too drunk to stand. Come on, let’s get you home.’
Which was easier said than done. Denny was a tall man, and though lightly built he had long limbs that had become remarkably unwieldy in the course of his drinking. Jack staggered under the burden. Good grief, the man was so steeped in alcohol he could have pickled a cherry! No wonder he’d barely made any progress towards Briesau unassisted.
Eventually, and it was quite a while later, they were tottering down the garden path to Denny's house and, before Jack had time to ring the bell, the door had opened and Miss Denny was there, staring out into the night.
‘Oh good grief…Tristan, you…Dr Jack, how can I thank you, I…where have you been, Tristan? I’ve been going out of my mind…’
‘Let me get him indoors, Miss Denny, and we’ll have a talk,’ said Jack, and she helped him manoeuvre her brother through the door, down the hall and into the salon. A reading lamp was the room’s only illumination, and the book that lay open beside it told of Miss Denny’s anxious wait for her errant brother.
‘On the sofa,’ she said and, as Jack deposited the rolling body of the singing master onto the broad sofa, Miss Denny switched on the electric light.
‘Dr Maynard, I am so sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m mortified…how can I thank you? It’s…he’s not normally like this, only…’
‘Has he done this before?’ asked Jack when she paused, for there was something in her unhappy face that told of long-kept secrets. She twisted her hands together.
‘I’d better fetch him some water,’ she said, and left the room abruptly. Jack turned back to the patient, whose eyes were blinking slowly open and closed.
‘'M home,’ he said.
‘You're home,’ agreed Jack, ‘and bound to wake up tomorrow with an awful hangover, if I’m any judge. Why’d you do it, Denny? Why’d you worry your sister like this? It’s not exactly decent behaviour.’
‘Not exactly decent man,’ was the mumbled response, and then Denny's head flopped to one side and his eyes closed with a finality that did not require Jack’s skills as a medical man to interpret.
‘He’s asleep,’ he said as Miss Denny came back through with a large mug of water. ‘We’ll wake him in a minute and make him drink something, but first you can sit down with me and tell me all about it.’