Read an Excerpt
ON the twenty-sixth my father drove off to Salla at two o'clock in the morning to see to a schoolteacher whom he found dying and left dead. From there he set out toward Hullberg to treat a child who had fallen into a hog tub full of boiling water that spring. Discharged from the hospital weeks ago, it was now back with its parents.He liked seeing the child, and dropped by there whenever he could. The parents were simple people, the father a miner in Koflach, the mother a servant in a butcher's household in Voitsberg. But the child was not left alone all day; it was in the care of one of the mother's sisters. On this day my father described the child to me in greater detail than ever before, adding that he was afraid it had only a short time to live. "I can say for a certainty that it won't last through the winter, so I am going to see it as often as possible now," he said. It struck me that he spoke of the child as a beloved person, very quietly and without having to consider his words. He let himself express a natural affection for the child as he hinted at the surroundings in which the child had grown up, not so much reared as guarded by its parents, and explained his speculations about these parents and their relationship to the child by filling out the details of the environment. While he spoke, he paced back and forth in his room, and soon no longer had the slightest need to lie down again.My father was the only doctor in a relatively large and "difficult" district, now that the other doctor had moved to Graz, where he had accepted a teaching post at the university. "The chance of a replacement," my father said, "is practically nil. A man would be mad to want to start a practice here." For his own part, he said, he was used to sacrificing himself to a sick populace given to violence as well as insanity. My being home for the weekend was a tranquilizer for him, he said, and one that was more and more necessary. He seemed tired. But when I threw open the shutters and the light from the Ache river dazzled us, he said he would take a walk. "Come," he said, "come along." While I was dressing, he talked about a "phenomenon of nature," a chestnut tree that had burst into blossom now, at the end of September. He had discovered it by the riverside beyond the village. This would be a good opportunity, he said, for us to discuss something he had long wanted to talk about. Probably, I thought, something connected with my studies in Leoben, something to do with mining. This was the right time for it, he said, before he was taken up with the day's quota of patients. "You know," he said, "often it's all too much for me."We did not want to wake my sister, and went out to the vestibule for our coats as quietly as possible. But as we were about to leave the house, the bell rang. At the door stood someone I did not know, who turned out to be an innkeeper from Gradenberg. He asked my father to come with him at once.And so we rode to Gradenberg in the innkeeper's wagon instead of strolling along the Ache and having our discussion. There was no more talk about the flowering chestnut tree. Instead we heard a most unsettling tale about the innkeeper's wife.She had been busy until two o'clock in the morning, her husband said, serving miners who had already been drunk for several hours and had divided into two hostile groups. Suddenly one of the miners without the slightest provocation struck her on the head, and she had dropped unconscious to the floor. The horrified miners carried her up to the bedroom on the second floor of the inn, her head bumping several times against the banister, and deposited her on her bed. Her husband woke up when the miners opened the bedroom door, and listened, dazed from sleep, to an account of the incident. The suddenly sobered miners wanted him to go to the police and lodge a complaint at once, that very night, against the assailant, a man named Grossl, who had run off but whom they all could identify. The police, including the constable supposedly on duty, had all been asleep, the innkeeper said. But by showering the police station windows with pebbles he had finally roused someone and been admitted. At first the police had advised him to come back in the forenoon to make a statement for the record, but he had insisted that the statement be recorded right then and there, and demanded that some of the constables at least come to the inn with him because his wife was lying there unconscious, the miners were still waiting, and he felt that they, too, should present their statements without delay. But the whole thing had taken too long; by the time he returned to the inn with two of the constables, all the miners except one were gone. His first thought was that he should not have left his wife alone for a moment, for as he entered the bedroom and saw the miner Kolig, who had been there all this time, the most horrible suspicions and imaginings ran through his mind. He did not know the man at all well, was acquainted with him merely from his occasional visits to the inn, and did not regard him as a neighbor in the sense of his being trustworthy. Moreover the miner spoke a Styrian dialect unpleasantly different from the dialect of the vicinity.Albert Kolig was so drunk that though still on his feet he could not speak even the shortest sentence. The younger of the constables promptly told him to sit down in the armchair in the corner and began questioning him, while the other constable took pictures of the woman lying on the bed as motionless as if she were a corpse. The answers Kolig gave for the record were in fact useless. He could not sit up and was on the point of keeling over when the constable, losing patience, pulled him up and yanked and shoved him out into the hall.The culprit, Grossl, was reputed to be the kind of man who the moment he entered a tavern was bound to stay until he had made some kind of ruckus. The constables said that it would not be difficult to find him and in view of his previous convictions the chances were that he would be in for a sentence of several years, since the facts of the case were plain enough: The blow on the woman's head had evidently caused a severe injury, for otherwise she would not be still unconscious. As soon as the older constable spoke the words "severe injury," everyone realized that a doctor would have to be called. "Meanwhile several hours have passed," the innkeeper said.It was already half past four when we arrived in Gradenberg. The innkeeper led us up to the bedroom, where the two constables were standing. My father had all of us go out into the hall. While he was examining the woman--in my brief glimpse of her I had the impression that she had given up the ghost--the two constables in the corridor discussed Kolig, who lay in a drunken stupor on the floor. They said he was dimwitted and was treating his family of six more and more vilely. They did not know what to do with him. When my father emerged from the bedroom, they dragged Kolig away from the stairs, which he had half blocked with his legs. Then they paid no more attention to him.The woman was in fact seriously injured and had to be taken to the Koflach hospital at once, my father said. He asked the constables to carry her carefully downstairs and place her in the rack wagon.The constables carried the innkeeper's wife out of the damp room with its green and brown wallpaper and cheap pine furniture, a room that must have been gloomy even on the brightest day. As the constables cautiously descended the steps with their charge, my father looked at me and then past me, and I thought that his look boded very ill for the innkeeper's wife.While I took my seat in the wagon beside the innkeeper, who drove, my father sat behind us next to the patient.During the whole ride, which we shortened by cutting across Krennhof, the innkeeper and I did not exchange a word. Because of the early hour the drive went quickly and easily. I had not been in this vicinity for a long time, I realized. I had to think far back to my earliest childhood to catch a glimpse of myself here and there playing by Gradner Brook. It struck me how seldom I had accompanied my father on his rounds, and that ever since my mother's death I had been left entirely to myself. It is the same for my sister, who must be feeling it even more painfully than I.In keeping with our mood, I imagine, the innkeeper, who had talked so much on the way to Gradenberg, did not say a word on the way to Koflach. It would hardly have been fitting for me to strike up any conversation with him. If I had understood my father right, there was little hope that the woman would survive the ride to Koflach. But when the hospital attendants lifted her out of the wagon, she was not yet dead. She died, however, while we were still in the hospital, before she could be brought into the only operating room, and her husband sensed the moment of her passing. While the attendants were wheeling her down the corridor, he had held her hand and wept. They did not let him stay with the body, but led him down to the courtyard where, left entirely to himself, he had to wait half an hour for my father. I let him alone, but unobtrusively kept watch over him. Then my father came down and walked about the yard with him, trying to calm him. He spoke to the innkeeper of the things that had to be done now, about arranging the funeral, the inquest, filing a charge against Grossl for manslaughter. It would be wise for him to stay around people now, my father said, not to isolate himself in his anguish, withdraw into his pain. My father said he would take care of certain necessary errands, like going to court, and would accompany him on others to ease his grief, first of all to see his wife who was being moved to the autopsy room.My father said that he had diagnosed a cerebral hemorrhage, which would have been fatal in any case. He would be receiving the exact details of the autopsy from the district coroner later in the morning. It was of no importance that the innkeeper had not notified him of the fatal blow until three hours after the incident, my father said. The woman could not have been saved. The deceased woman was thirty-three, and my father had known her for years. It had always seemed to him that innkeepers treated their wives with extreme callousness, he said. They themselves usually went to bed early, having overworked themselves all day on their slaughtering, their cattle dealing, their farms. But because they thought of nothing but the business, they left their wives to take care of the taverns until the early morning hours, exposed to the male clients who drank steadily so that as the night wore on their natural brutality became less and less restrained. My father said this to me in an interval when we fell a bit behind the innkeeper, who was walking with us but seemed in a total daze. "All these long drinking bouts end badly," my father said. "And in this region a high percentage of them end in a fatality. The innkeepers' own wives are often the victims; the innkeepers set these helpless women to tending the public rooms so they can extract every penny from their drunken patrons by pouring the cheapest brandy into their unresisting guts."When we had caught up to the innkeeper again, my father assured him that it would be easy to find Grossl now that the police were informed of it all. No matter where he was holed up, Grossl would not be able to stay hidden long. The innkeeper's tears and distraught air were affecting precisely because his dealings with cattle and the tavern world had made him the embodiment of the district's characteristic brutality. But the more my father tried to talk to him, the more pointless the effort seemed. Finally my father contented himself with giving the man the necessary instructions in what I thought a very simple and easily understood way. Then we left him to himself again.My father went to the autopsy room and talked with the coroner and his assistants. Meanwhile I kept an eye on the innkeeper as he sat on the single bench in the hospital yard. I guessed that his wife's body was in the two-wheeled morgue cart that a young attendant pushed past me. The sight of the morgue cart was nothing new to me, for my way to school had led past the hospital and I often used to pause at the spot where the morgue could be seen between two elderberry bushes so I could look at the cart that stood by the entrance to the morgue day and night when it was not in use. It was housed in an open shed on the side of the building visible to me. This sheet-metal morgue cart had always had a macabre fascination for me, and often appeared as a major, horrible prop on the stage of my childhood dreams. The young attendant, barely past school age, pushed the cart to the entrance of the morgue, and I heard my father coming from that direction. We went out of the hospital yard, moving quickly along the walls so as to keep out of sight of the innkeeper, who was still sitting on the bench. My father, I thought, wherever he feels at home, which is with patients and in hospitals, doesn't act as if he were part of a vast, opaque business organization, though that's what people accuse doctors of nowadays, but rather as I've seen him act today, as if he were part of a more and more crystal-clear science. I suppose there are many doctors like some I have met who are nothing but businessmen, and talk and act like businessmen even when they have keen scientific minds. But my father isn't one of them.
From the Trade Paperback edition.