On the fourth day, the three men took the wire tramway up Mountain Wolkenstein. The day was even more beautiful than the last, the air icily clear, the sun drawing deep blue shadows onto the snow. It had been Johann’s idea; the maître d’ had assured him that the view from the mountain top would be spectacular today, and of course, as Eduard knew, Johann was glad for every chance to spend money as per his orders. He had presented his two friends with the tickets during breakfast.
“Gentlemen, I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty,” he said, arranging the tickets on the table with his usual mindfulness. “I do not wish to go alone. Of course, I will have to leave you at noon.” His voice dropped into a cadence of dread. “For my second skiing lesson.”
Thirty minutes later, they glided over the tree-covered hills at the foot of Mountain Wolkenstein, in a gondola along with fifteen other tourists, before steeply rising up. Various passengers paled when the cart shook. Fritz, however, leaned over the back of his seat, much like a boy pressing his face against the window of the candy store, and just soaked in the sights. He looked more fascinated the more adventurous the landscape became – the precipices deeper, the horizon farther and farther away, a frozen waterfall below. As determined as Eduard was to embrace nature on this trip, the excitement on the other man’s face still captured his gaze instead.
Eventually, the Alpine shapes became more temperate again, wide expanses of snow-covered mountainsides littered with miniature skiers. Mountain Wolkenstein looked almost shockingly serene up here.
Once they arrived at the top, the three men took upon themselves the short hike through the fresh snow to the hotel at the top of the mountain, where they each sank onto a canvas chair on the hotel’s wooden sun deck. Fritz sprung for a nut oil so that they could cover their faces for sun protection.
Johann begged a waiter to bring him a pair of binoculars, searching the mountain chains all around them for chamois with an unusual determination.
Eduard would have supposed that the nuisances back at their own hotel couldn’t be further from Fritz’s mind. The other man lounged in his chair as if completely at peace. But then he opened his eyes and looked at the sky wondrously.
“What do you think, Eduard,” he said. “What would it be like to really be a millionaire? I am only excluding Herrn Kesselhuth from this question because he obviously already knows the answer, and I wouldn’t want him to take away the surprise,” he hurried to add.
“It certainly came as a surprise to me,” Johann said sardonically.
Eduard produced a satisfied groan and sank deeper into his chair. “Oh, wealth is overrated, if you ask me. After all, I’m sitting in a chair on one of the most beautiful mountainsides in all of the Alps, sun shining on my face and surrounded by my friends, and none of that can be bought with money.”
“That’s only because you won the contest of the Schlüterwerke, though,” Fritz doubtfully replied. “And I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but if you had been the one who was mistaken for the heir of the throne of Albania, you wouldn’t have had to sweep the ice brink yesterday, either.”
“I liked sweeping the ice brink! A little menial labor every day is very healthy,” Eduard said immediately. “And I didn’t have to be rich to win the Schlüterwerke contest, now did I? I won fair and square, lockbox address and all, and now I’m here although I’m poor.
“Tell us, Herr Kesselhuth,” he turned to Johann, eager to distract attention from himself, but also with the usual amusement that came with challenging his butler’s cover story. Johann squirmed so prettily. “What is it like to be a millionaire?”
“I agree with Herrn Schulze.” Johann, however, said it with great dignity. “Not everything can be bought with money. Reason, for example.”
At that, he gave Eduard a long look, making clear that he was alluding to Eduard’s decision to be here, like this, and to sweep the snow off the ice brink, and of course, to absolutely not let Johann iron his dirty old beggar’s pants. Eduard couldn’t help it; he threw his head back and laughed.
Fritz looked mystified by the outburst, but he chuckled at him anyway. “I would claim that’s something only a millionaire would say, but if Eduard agrees with you, Herr Kesselhuth, I will try to be a good democrat and bow to the majority vote.”
They returned their attention to the art of sunbathing. Before they knew it, noon arrived, and Johann rose to meet Toni Graswander, the skiing teacher, who greeted him with all skiing apparel at the edge of the terrace. Toni Graswander was just an expensive enough skiing teacher to meet Johann wherever the supposed shipping company owner wished to meet. They could hear him greet Johann with a hearty, “Good day!” in Austrian-saturated English, displaying international sportsmanship.
With Johann gone, Eduard turned in his chair to watch Fritz, spread out on his canvas chair with a degree of relaxation reminiscent of a dog who’d turned on his back in expectance of a belly rub. Though Fritz was not one who would have his belly rubbed, of course. Even though he was not in actuality the heir of the throne of Albania, or any kind of millionaire at all, a wall of dignity and grace that fascinated Eduard surrounded the other man. Fritz was the opposite of Eduard, after all; Eduard might have been flighty, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be observant, no matter what Frau Kunkel said. And he knew… he knew that he would not be at liberty of enjoying his sweeping adventures in the same way if he really was as poor as the hotel staff thought, if he really relied on people’s goodwill to be allowed to encash this prize that he had won honestly.
Fritz, though, knew what that was like. He was much too handsome and tidy and polite to ever be treated quite as badly as the supposed Eduard Schulze, no doubt about that, but the fact was that he couldn’t afford to not be handsome and tidy and polite. Fritz Hagedorn wasn’t acting poor for the sake of the experience, he was poor. And Eduard admired him all the more for it; he had fewer liberties and opportunities than Eduard, and yet he was wonderful.
“What would you do?” he asked after a moment of silent observation of Fritz; the air was still and the noise of chatting skiers far away, and Eduard’s usual casualness felt inappropriate. So he asked it seriously. “Say you suddenly were a millionaire. Say, right now, this second, you become a millionaire. What would you do?”
Fritz smiled first, then opened his eyes, turning his head to face Eduard again without moving any of the rest of his body.
For a moment, he just looked at him.
“First I would wire some of my money to my mother, obviously,” he said.
Eduard nodded earnestly. “Obviously.”
“Then…” Fritz paused, turning his head back again to look at the sky. After a moment, he chuckled. “I would throw those damn cats out of my room.”
“You could do that now,” Eduard pointed out. “You just aren’t because I asked you not to.”
“Well, you like them so much!” Fritz groaned, letting it transform into a laugh. “I’d obviously be a terrible millionaire, Eduard! I’m already doing it wrong!”
Eduard smirked at him. “Tell me more. Come on. They’ve been treating you like a crown prince for three days; you’ve got to have thought about it.”
So Fritz did. Sun still high in the air above them, he detailed how he would travel, the places he would go, the places he would take his mother – “She has only ever been to the Harz. It’s a crime!” He then allowed his vision to grow bigger, thinking first of how wealth would allow him to make business connections that in turn would lead to job opportunities, until it occurred to him that he could start his own advertising company, if he had capital, hire some talented advertisers just like himself off the streets and revolutionize big business marketing.
Eduard had to squelch an urge to have Johann wire home right this second to make seed money drop into this fine man’s lap.
Fritz, anyway, had to have noticed how happy listening to his ramblings had made Eduard, because after he finished, he had one look at his face, obviously found what he had hoped to find, and beamed at him wildly.
“It’s all just pipe dreams,” he said cheerfully. “Of course. I will always be a poor devil who’ll rely on company contests to go on vacations. But it doesn’t matter. Because I’m here. And the sun is threatening to give me a sunburn although it is minus fifteen degrees. And because Herr Kesselhuth might be a very rich man, and yet he’s never seen chamois until today. And because you’re here, and I’ve won you as a friend. And because you and Herr Kesselhuth are right.”
“We are?” Eduard was entranced, absolutely captivated, but that didn’t stop him from dramatically raising an eyebrow.
Fritz nodded. “Oh yes. You two are right. There are things that money can’t buy. Important things. The most important things.”
His gaze wandered over Eduard’s body then, down to his old boots and up again, making clear that he was meaning to take him in in every way conceivable. Eventually, his eyes focused on Eduard’s face again. The gesture would have bordered on lascivious, if his eyes had just rested on the height of Eduard’s lips one second longer. Naturally, Fritz was too well-behaved to be lascivious. In public.
Something tingled in Eduard’s stomach. Frau Kunkel would make me take bitters against that, he thought. Frau Kunkel had always had problems seeing what was right in front of her, though.
Eduard considered pointing out to Fritz that money could buy you some things; Eduard should know. It could buy immunity, for instance, people looking the other way. It could buy vacations to places other than the Alps, warm and exotic ones, ones that had no unpleasant laws against who you could be seen kissing. Everybody did it, if they were rich enough and had that particular inclination. Eduard was old enough to remember back before the dark days, the days of Schleicher and Papen and Hindenburg, when the newspapers had been full of celebrities who lay on the beaches with their lovers. He remembered how Berlin had been full of gay men and women, a whole scandalous and wonderful world exploding into existence anew every night. He planned on growing old enough to witness its rebirth. For now, he lived assured that those awful laws didn’t have to apply to a man of his stature.
But Fritz currently thought that neither he nor Eduard were rich. He’d think Eduard was merely confabulating again, speaking of something that they wouldn’t ever have.
They had time, though.
For now, Eduard smiled, broadly and contentedly, exclaiming a comfortable grunt when he wiggled into the best position on his chair. Fritz watched him for a moment, very attentively, and then smiled a little to himself before following his lead. They’d understood each other without words from the beginning.
It was a beautiful day. Snow had never been that white, the sky had never been that blue. Skiers were rushing down the mountain all around, one of them a rather panicked Johann Kesselhuth who didn’t know how to brake, but they didn’t come here; they left this peaceful spot be.
Eduard felt just rich enough.