Excerpt: Austin Ratner’s ‘The Jump Artist’
I think, however, that on a beautiful winter day, immediately after a snowstorm, when millions of coniferæ, bowed down beneath their crystal burdens, render the mountains dazzling with silver-powdered forests and pyramids of prisms, this journey offers one of the most glorious sights I have ever looked upon… . For this old thoroughfare is a thread on which are strung the souvenirs of two thousand years.
—JOHN L. STODDARD’s “Lectures Around Lake Garda”
10 SEPTEMBER 1928, THE ZILLERTAL, AUSTRIA.
Eduard Severin Maria, one of the elder princes of Auersperg, led a hunt that day in the valley. His horse fell and was later found beheaded in the grass.
But Eduard gave little thought to his horses. The Auerspergs took greater pride in their hunting dogs. They were Weimaraners, direct descendants of the Chiens Gris de Saint Louis, the unicorn hunters of medieval tapestry, and they had for centuries guarded over the meadows and moraine of western Austria and lower Germany. Their colorless eyes reflected the mountain wastes like white amulets.
The prince had in fact personally overseen his dogs’ breeding in order to meet the standards of the German Weimaraner Club. Doing so wasn’t hard with animals of such pure stock. One had only to look out for the longhair trait, forbidden by the club’s studbook. Eduard was convinced that careful breeders like himself would soon eradicate the flaw from the hounds of Bavaria and Austria.
Yet only that morning of the hunt, he’d discovered two drowsy dun-colored pups who, not needing the warmth of their brothers and sisters, lay apart on the rug in the drafty minstrel’s hall. Longhairs among his own dogs! If word got out, the club could expel him, or sterilize his dogs. And worse, the source was almost certainly Mars: Freya had littered sixteen pups with short coats before mating with Mars, and Mars had never sired before. Prince von Auersperg would prefer not to shoot the animal; he was the best hunting dog the prince had ever had. He never failed to bring back the quarry, each time laying the marmot or grouse at the prince’s feet and turning right around to watch the mountain again with those eyes still and pale as an old moon. But the dog’s breeding was a problem that remained unsolved, and it worried the prince all that day.
The prince tested the air with a wave of his palm. A warm and dry Föhn had blown down from the mountaintops in the last days, bringing clear weather and turning the mountains cobalt blue, but the dust now hovering on the roads portended rain. Well, he was not yet too old to hunt the Zillertal in September, whatever the weather.
The hounds ran, and patches of morning mist rolled over the cracked limestone, so that the dogs’ wild barking seemed at times to come up out of the ground itself. The horses sailed the riders over the mist with loud clopping on the stone and quick thuds on the turf like a pelting of gunfire. The rifles creaked against the leather saddles. The horns echoed from the Kammë and ravines loomed up so suddenly in the hazy morning light, one had to be very skilled on a horse to avoid a nasty fall. By the time the sun had burned away the mist, a fox was caught, but the prince’s horse tumbled down the brook leading to the Zamserbach. The prince was unhurt. He ordered the horse shot through the brain, and it was done under a midday sun. The hunters headed off to the inn at Breitlahner for lunch.
When the prince had gone, carrying his fox by the neck, the steed was beheaded, washing the grass in blood.