The two climbers were crouched not five feet apart on the mountain summit--a disorderly heap of boulders thrown together in Paleozoic times and made slippery today by a fine mist of summer rain.
"Ah, here we are at the top," said the first.
The other didn't answer, only stared.
"Is something wrong? Why are you looking at me so strangely?"
"I want you to recall some pretty silly things you've said. These are your words, your exact words--do you remember? 'It takes so very little, just your hand warm against mine and our fingers entwined, and I feel as if I'm connecting with your very soul.'
You said that."
Silence for a long moment. "I see . . . now I understand. I did say that once, I admit it. I'm not ashamed." His green eyes held a kind of pagan innocence.
"And you said, 'You are my very heart's heart.'
"I said it, yes. They're quotations from a poet, but they expressed how I felt. Why are you going into this now, for God's sake? Let's discuss that at another time, in another place . . ."
"It's all down in writing, you know."
"I--didn't know that."
"But I'm going to destroy
it. That it happened at all is bad enough. I know it will get out. And if it does, it will be the biggest disgrace of my life." The first climber lunged at the other, like a rattlesnake striking. But also skillfully, with one booted foot wedged in a crevice between the rocks.
The totally unexpected push easily unbalanced the other climber. In the man's green eyes there was horrified surprise, as he fell far, far down to the rocks below.
* * *
Louise had barely joined the group on the veranda when the hikers filed in, their faces strangely taut. They discarded their backpacks on the wide-board floor, slumping into available seats or leaning against pillars.
Janie came straight over to her mother and her slim body melted against Louise's, almost as it had when she was a tiny baby. "Ma," she murmured against Louise's shoulder, "you won't believe it." She said no more, deferring to someone older to speak for the group.
The group included Mark and Sandy Post, Janie and Chris, Rod and Dorothy Gasparra, Jim Cooley. But no Jeffrey Freeling.
"What's the matter?" asked Bill curtly. "And where's Jeffrey?"
Jim Cooley was the one to speak. Always the leader. "Bad news, Bill. Dr. Freeling had a fall from the summit of Bear Mountain. He's dead."
"My God, man, when?"
"About three hours ago. We were climbing up the north face--I was pretty close behind him. It was misty when it happened, so no one could see exactly what went wrong. He reached the summit first, and then he seemed to lose his footing. He fell, oh, I'd guess a hundred feet or more. After that, we all scrambled down. Someone on the trail had a cell phone and called the State Police. They questioned all of us, then drove us out to the trailhead." He heaved a big sigh and let his head sag in his hands.
Chris approached Cooley, as if he wanted to help the man in some way. "Mr. Cooley's pretty bad off, Mr. Eldridge. He was the one who nearly saved Dr. Freeling."
Cooley maintained his bent posture and shook his head sadly. Louise thought he looked like a collapsed version of Rodin's statue, The Thinker.
Chris continued, "As soon as we found him, Jim--I mean Mr. Cooley--gave him mouth-to-mouth, and pounded his chest."
"He started breathing," said Janie, "and then he stopped again." Her eyes filled with tears and she couldn't continue. Louise tightened her grip around the girl's waist.
"Jim did his best," said Rod Gasparra diffidently, his eyes tormented.
"He did--he tried and tried," added Mark Post. "They both did: first Jim, then Sandy . . . they're both CPR experts." Sandy sat limply in one of the chairs, her eyes closed. She appeared to be on the verge of total collapse. As Mark spoke, Jim looked at Sandy closely, a crease in his brow showing his concern about the effects of all this on the young woman.
Barbara Seymour, Teddy, Elizabeth, and the other members of the inn staff had gathered on the veranda, and the story had to be told again.
"I am so very sorry for all of us," said Barbara, with a worried look in her eyes. "By the way, where's Stephanie, and where's Neil? Were they hiking, too?"
Teddy bent his cowlicked head comfortingly over his employer and said, "Don't worry, Miss Seymour, it's all right--they're
all right. Remember: They went antiquing out in the country. They're really all right."
Barbara seemed to feel better after hearing that, and clasped Teddy's hand in hers. "A horrible accident, but not the first life those mountains have claimed . . ." Then, recovering herself, she disengaged her hand, drew herself up tall, and said firmly, "We will still serve tea in half an hour, for those who feel up to it. That will give you a chance to freshen up. Tea will help all of us cope. Then we will delay dinner for an hour." She turned away, and then had another thought. "And dinner--you must feel no obligation to dress for dinner, of course."
Louise was listening intently to the story told by the shocked hikers. Only gradually did she see how debilitating the news was to each one of them, in very different ways. Mark hauled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit up nervously, but remembered to put a supportive hand on his wife's shoulder, for Sandy was letting the tears fall now. The Gasparras, not much for conversation at the best of times, tried to make suitable small talk about Jeffrey. But Louise thought such sociability seemed unnatural, coming from them. Grace hid behind her dark glasses, and then disappeared like a nervous fawn down a stairway to the lawn. Bebe had to be helped to her feet by Bill, and was grateful to be escorted to her room. "What a nice man he was," the widow kept mumbling. "All the nice men seem to die."
The Storms stood to one side. They were like figures carved of stone. These were people who had obviously experienced death before. Frank Storm moved to where Jim Cooley was sitting, huddled and exhausted, and put a sympathetic hand on his friend's shoulder. Jim looked up and the two men exchanged a long glance that to Louise seemed to say, "I feel what you feel."
As others stood in clusters and continued to talk about the death, Nora sat alone and stared at the hills, visible in the far distance between the groves of pine and hardwood trees. She neither spoke nor was spoken to, almost as if she were conducting a brief, private memorial for Jeffrey.
Bill hovered near Chris and Janie, with Teddy hanging on the edge of the group. Louise saw her husband's arm around their daughter now, and realized he was anxious about how she would handle her first brush with death. No, not her first: her second. Louise had forgotten the mulch murder, the results of which Janie saw firsthand--the severed body parts, the blood . . .
Teddy approached Janie and asked, "I sure hope you're all right." She gave him a compassionate smile and enfolded him in the conversation, causing Chris to glower at the man who was stepping so nervily into his territory. Teddy seemed to flourish under the spell of Janie's approval, and Louise saw that he was indeed an interesting-looking young man--could he be a man with a future in Janie's life?
Like a father to the rescue, Bill had gone into a little monologue aimed at soothing nerves and relieving guilt: "It is shocking. The world has lost a man who was a leader in the field of plant genetics. But, Janie, terrible accidents happen sometimes. It isn't anything that could be helped or prevented--there's nothing you could have done . . ."
Janie gave him an impatient look. "Unless, of course, we'd all stayed in town and just gone on the garden tour. Look, Dad, I know all that. I'm perfectly all right, even if you think I'm not. So please stop hovering." She turned her back on the solicitous men and grabbed Louise's arm. "Ma, come on, let's go upstairs. I have something important to tell you."
Excerpted from The Garden Tour Affair by Ann Ripley. Copyright © 1998 by Ann Ripley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.