15. A Regrettable Transaction
"Uh—oh," Barnaby A said as they approached their own house at the end of their outing. "What's that on the sign?"
They had all become very accustomed to the FOR SALE CHEAP sign that was still tacked to their window box and to the tacked-on addition that announced the reduction of the price. And they were so accustomed to scurrying into their disguises and poses at the approach of prospective buyers that Jane could become a lamp in very few seconds and Tim could burrow under his fur rug in no time at all. Nanny took a little longer to transform herself into a statue of Aphrodite because, of course, she had to shed her clothes and powder herself and wrap herself in a sheet—all a little time consuming. But it was routine by now. The real estate agent would call to announce a showing of the house, and all of them would automatically move into their places, waiting for the sound of her key in the front-door lock.
Usually the showings were very short. Sometimes the prospective buyers never even reached the upstairs. That was always a bit of a disappointment to Nanny, and she was thinking of moving her statue's position perhaps to the parlor, where people would have a better view of Aphrodite.
"Curses!" Tim said in horror as he ran forward and read aloud the further addition to the sign. "Look at this! How could this have happened? We've been sold!"
"Oh, no!" Barnaby B groaned. "We should never have gone for a walk!"
"Terrible things always happen when one is out for a walk," Jane pointed out sadly. "Remember Little Red Riding Hood? And, oh dear, Hansel and Gretel?"
Nanny opened the door and hurried inside. On the hall table she found a hastily written note. "It's from the real estate agent," she explained with a worried look, and read it aloud to the children, who had gathered around her.
"'Congratulations! I'm sorry you weren't home when I called to announce our visit. But the house looked lovely and smelled so appealing—raisin cookies, I think—and the prospective buyer fell in love with it and has given me a ton of money. You have two weeks to leave. Please feel free to take your undies. Good luck.'"
"Oh, no!" the twins wailed.
"Drat!" said Tim with a scowl.
Jane stamped her foot and began to cry.
"Let us not waste time with tears and useless expostulations," Nanny told them. "What if this were a story in a book with a well-worn maroon leather binding? What would good old-fashioned people do in this situation?"
"They would call the sheriff," Tim said.
"Murder the villain," the twins suggested.
Jane simply continued to sob, and Nanny handed her a lace-trimmed hanky.
"They would make a plan," Nanny announced. "But first," she added, heading toward the kitchen and reaching for her apron where it hung on a wall hook, "they would bake a lemon soufflé." She opened the refrigerator and took out some eggs.
While the soufflé was in the oven—and during that time they all were required to tiptoe (because heavy footsteps can ruin a baking soufflé; not many people know this, Nanny pointed out, and that is why there are so many ruined soufflés in the world)—the mail was delivered in a whoosh through the mail slot of the front door.
"No-o-o!" wailed Tim, holding up a postcard. "They've again survived!"
Everyone tiptoed to his side, even Nanny, though she checked the oven time first (because a soufflé must be very carefully timed, she had told them, and not many people were careful enough about this aspect of soufflé baking). Tim read the card aloud.
"Hah!" they all said aloud, but quietly because of the soufflé (excessive noise can be the death of a soufflé, Nanny had explained).
"'Such an adventure! The helicopter crashed and the pilot plummeted into the raging volcano! Cleverly, we clung to a rotor and were spun to safe ground. Only the pilot was lost and it didn't matter because he was Presbyterian.
"'We wonder why the house is still unsold. Perhaps it is because of the cat. Please have her put to sleep.'"
Jane looked down at the cat, who had just rubbed against her legs with a loud purr. "She sleeps every night, and a lot during the day as well," she said. "Why should we put her to sleep more often? When would she pounce about chasing bits of fluff?"
Her brothers looked meaningfully at each other, wondering whether to explain to Jane what their parents had meant. Nanny shook her head at them. So they remained silent.
"Does it say anything else? Or just end with that cruel sentence about the cat?" Barnaby A asked.
"A bit more." Tim continued reading.
"'Now off to our next excursion! And this one on our own! No more guides for us! We are to climb an alp! One that has never been successfully climbed! It is cluttered with frozen bodies. But we are prepared. We have bought pitons for our feet and crampons to attach to our heads.'"
"I don't think pitons are for your feet," Barnaby B said. "I read a book about mountain climbing. Pitons are spikes that you hammer into the ice."
"I read the same book as B," said his twin. "Crampons are for your feet. For your boots, actually. Why would they put them on their heads?"
"Because they are dolts," Tim said, remembering again that Nanny had outlawed the word and looking at her defiantly.
"They are dolts indeed," Nanny said. She stared at the postcard and murmured, "I myself am Presbyterian."
Jane was on her knees, playing with the cat. "Where are we going to live?" she asked piteously. "And can the cat come?"
The kitchen timer buzzed, and they tiptoed to the kitchen to eat soufflé and make a plan.
16. Two Terrible Tourists
The small Swiss village was so remote that travelers rarely passed through. Even the train that had been buried there six years before had been on its way to someplace else, to a different town with museums and shops that sold plastic models of alpenhorns and Saint Bernards.
For that reason, because it was such an unusual happening, the villagers took notice of the two tourists who arrived wearing sunglasses and carrying badly folded maps. The townspeople murmured to each other about the odd clothing: Bermuda shorts on both man and woman, and Birkenstock sandals on their feet. "Whatever are they doing here?" they said to each other in low voices. They watched the couple enter the small gasthaus on the main street.
"We need a big lunch," the man said to the waitress. He picked up the menu and glanced at it. "I can't read this. It isn't in English. Tell me, in a civilized language, what you have to eat. We need nourishment.
"We're going to climb that alp," the man announced loudly, pointing through the window toward the towering mountain.
His wife, looking at the guidebook, said, "Listen to this!" and read aloud to the pretty waitress, who was the daughter of the proprietor, "'Never been successfully climbed. With good binoculars one can see, in summer when the deepest snow has abated, the frozen bodies of several famous climbers. It is too dangerous for rescuers to retrieve these poor lost souls and they remain there as a reminder to others and a tribute to the ferocious power of this mountain.'" She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head and squinted through the window.
"I can't see the bodies," she whined. "I want to see the frozen bodies."
"Can I get a good thick steak?" the man asked the waitress.
She shook her head, and he gave a sigh of exasperation. "These foreigners," he muttered irritably to his wife.
"Well, how about a Reuben sandwich?" he asked.
"No, I'm sorry," she said politely. "We have fondue. We're very proud of it. It is our national dish."
"Fondue? Good lord, do you know what I call that? Fon doo-doo, that's what. Well, we'll have hamburgers. We need something substantial. And some drinks with ice cubes in them, for heaven's sake. I don't know why, in a country with ice everywhere, one can't get a drink with ice cubes."
The pretty waitress took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. No hamburgers. I could ask Father to make you a cheese sandwich."
Grouchily they agreed to cheese sandwiches and grouchily they ate them when they arrived. Then they grouchily paid the bill without leaving a tip.
"What are you staring at?" the man asked the waitress as they turned to leave.
She blushed, and apologized. She had been staring, actually, at their heads, thinking for a moment that they may be royalty because they seemed to be wearing crowns of some sort and because they had acted a bit like titled people from minor principalities. Now, however, she could see that on their heads they were wearing hiking equipment intended, actually, for the soles of hiking boots. It was quite startling.
Later, when the two had gone, headed to the trail at the foot of the mountain, noisily dragging the pitons that they had attached by string to their ankles, the waitress cleared the table and said in a worried voice to her father, "They're planning to climb the mountain. But they don't even have warm clothing. And for some reason they are wearing crampons on their heads."
"Should we send someone out to stop them?"
"We Swiss never get involved," he said. "Anyway, no one is available. Everyone is going to the wedding. So are we." He went to the door of the gasthaus and hung a sign there that said GESCHLOSSEN, BIN AUF HOCHZEIT: Closed for a wedding.
The wedding was a very exciting event for the village. Finally, after years of bachelorhood—so many that his mother had been wringing her hands in despair—the tall, thin postmaster, Hans-Peter, had fallen wildly and wonderfully in love with the some what mysterious and very meticulous foreign lady who had been rescued from the avalanche. She had already rearranged his postal boxes as well as his kitchen utensils. on this day they were being married in the village church at the foot of the forbidding mountain. The bride was wearing an edelweiss wreath in her neatly curled hair. Her young son, in his lederhosen, was acting as ring bearer.
Not only the post office but all of the local shops were closed for the afternoon. All of the villagers gathered, first for the ceremony and then for the lengthy celebration, which included yodeling, beer drinking, and many dances in which the dancers bumped their behinds together and clapped their hands.
A happy day, to be sure.
But not for the bride's son. For his mother's sake, he danced and yodeled and smiled. He was polite to the postmaster and called him Schtepfader. But beneath his pretense, the boy was deeply unhappy not just at the wedding, but in the little village. Nothing about Switzerland agreed with him. He was very clumsy on skis. The sound of cowbells hurt his ears. He was allergic to cheese, and cuckoo clocks made him very nervous. He had twice nicked his fingers with his Swiss army knife. His lederhosen itched, and his knees were always cold. And though the memories were blurred after such a long time, and though his mother had said again and again, "If he cared about us he would have written!" the boy did recall a kind and loving man with a thick mustache, a man he had called Papa, who had once read to him, animal or adventure stories usually, in a quiet voice while they sat together in a porch swing.