- CHAPTER V In Search of a Mule
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In Search of a Mule
"Yes, we await it, but it still delays, and then we suffer."-MATTHEW ARNOLD.
-PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.
JACK no longer attempted to dissuade me from my walking tour. Whether Molly had talked to him, or whether he had, unprompted, seen the error of his ways, I cannot tell, but the fact remains that, during the rest of our run to Lucerne, he showed a lively interest in the forthcoming trip.
"I suppose," said he, when we had caught our first sight of Pilatus (seen, as one might say, on his back premises), "I suppose that anywhere in Switzerland, there ought to be no trouble about finding a good pack-mule. Somehow one thinks of Switzerland and mules together, just as one does of bacon and eggs, or nuts and raisins, and yet, I can't recall ever having come across any mules in Lucerne, can you, Monty?"
"No," I admitted, "but there were probably so many that one didn't notice them--like flies, you know."
"Of course, the air of Switzerland is dark with mules and donkeys," said Molly, who always seemed quick to resent any obstacles thrown between me and my mule. "One sees them in picture books. All | | 55 that Lord Lane will have to say is, 'Let there be mules,' and there will be mules--strings of them. He will only have to pick and choose. The thing will be to get a good one, and a nice, handsome, troubadour-sort of man who can cook, and jodel, and sew, and put up tents, and keep off murderers in mountain passes at night. It may take a day or two to find exactly what is wanted."
"The best person in Switzerland to give Monty all the information he needs," said Jack, evidently not wholly convinced, "is Herr Widmer, who has an hotel high above Lucerne, on the Sonnenberg. He has another in Mentone, and I've heard him tell how he has often come up from the Riviera to Switzerland on horseback. He would be able to advise Monty exactly how to go."
"Let's stop at his place on the Sonnenberg, then," said Molly, who never took more than sixty seconds to make the most momentous decisions, less important ones getting themselves arranged while slow-minded English people drew breath.
Certainly, as we drove through the streets of Lucerne, we saw neither mules nor donkeys, but Molly accounted for this by saying that no doubt they were all at dinner. In any case, with the blue lake a-glitter with silver sequins dropped from the gowns of those sparkling White Ladies, the mountains; the shops gay and bright in the sunshine, on one side the way, shadows lying cool and soft under the long line of green trees on the other, who could take thought of absent mules? Let them dine or die; it mattered not. Lucerne was beautiful, the day divine.
When we were lunching on the balcony of the Winstons' private sitting-room at the Sonnenberg, | | 56 with mountains billowing round and below us, I saw that there was something on Molly's mind, for she was distraite. Suddenly she said, "Before you talk to Herr Widmer about your mule, don't you think that you had better decide absolutely upon your route?"
"But, darling," objected Jack, "that is largely what he wants advice about."
"He can't do better than take mine, then," said Molly. "Lord Lane, promise me you'll take mine and no one's else."
"Of course I'll promise," I answered recklessly, for her eyes were irresistible, and any man would have been enraptured that so exquisite a creature should interest herself in his fate. "It doesn't much matter to me where I go, so long as I can moon about in the mountains, and eventually, before I'm old and grey, bring up on the Riviera."
"Well, then," said Molly, "since you are so accommodating, I not only advise but order you to go over the Great St. Bernard Pass, down to Aosta."
"Might a humble mortal ask, 'Why Aosta?'" I ventured.
"Because it's beautiful, and beneficent, and a great many other things which begin with B."
"You've never seen it, though," said Jack.
"But I've always wanted to see it, and as you and I have another programme to carry out at present, it would be nice if Lord Lane would go, and tell us all about it. He's promised me to keep a sort of diary, for our benefit later."
"I saw the Duchess of Aosta married at Kingston-on-Thames," I reflected aloud. "She was a very pretty girl. What am I to do after I've made my pilgrimage to her country--about which, by the | | 57 way, I know practically nothing except that there's a poster in railway stations which represents it as having bright pink mountains and a purply-yellow sky?"
"Oh, after Aosta, I've no instructions," replied Molly, as if she washed her hands of me and of my affairs. "For the rest, let Fate decide." As she spoke, she looked mystic, sibylline, and I could almost fancy that before her dreamy eyes arose a vision of my future as if floating in a magic crystal. For an instant I was inclined to beg that she would prophesy, but the mood passed. All that I asked or expected to get from the future was a mule, a man, some mountains, and forgetfulness.
It was decided, then, that the only questions to be put to Herr Widmer should concern the mule. I had a vague dream of presently standing on the balcony, while various muleteers and their well-groomed animals passed in review under my eyes, but the landlord's first words struck at my hopes and left them maimed.
"There are no mules to be had in Lucerne," he said.
"In the country near by, then?"
"Nor in the country near by. The nearest place where you could get one would be in the Valais--best at Brig."
"But I don't want to go to Brig," I said forlornly. "If I went to Brig, that would mean that I should have to do a lot of walking afterwards, to reach the parts I wish to reach, through the hot Rhone Valley, where I should be eaten up by gnats and other disagreeable wild beasts. I know the Rhone Valley between Brig and Martigny already, by railway travelling, and that is more than enough."| | 58
"The Rhone Valley is a misunderstood valley. Even between Martigny and Brig, it is far more beautiful than anyone who has seen it only from the railway can possibly judge," pleaded Herr Widmer.
"It well repays a riding or walking tour."
But my soul girded against the Rhone Valley, and I would not be driven into it by persuasion. "I'd rather put up with a donkey to carry my luggage," said I, with visions of discarding half my Instantaneous Breakfasts, "than begin my walk in the Rhone Valley. Surely, Lucerne can be counted on to yield me up at least a donkey?"
"You must go into Italy to find an âne," replied the landlord, inexorable as Destiny.
I suddenly.understood how a woman feels when she stamps her foot and bursts into tears. (There are advantages in being a woman.) To be thwarted for the sake of a mere, wretched animal, which I had always looked upon with indifference as the least of beasts! It was too much. My features hardened. Inwardly, I swore a great oath that, if I went to the world's end to obtain it, I would have a pack-mule, or, if worse came to worst, a pack-donkey.
At this bitter moment I chanced to meet Molly's eyes and read in them a sympathy well-nigh extravagant. But I knew why it had been called out. If there is one thing which causes unbearable anguish to a true American girl it is to find herself wanting something "right away" which she cannot have. But luckily for her country's peace, her lovers' happiness, this occurs seldom.
"What is the nearest place in Italy where Lord Lane could get a donkey?" she asked.
"It is possible that he might be able to buy or hire one at Airolo," said our landlord. "At one time | | 59 they had them there, for the railway works, and mules also. But now I do not--"
"We can go there and see," said Molly.
"Airolo's on the other side of the St. Gothard, and automobiles aren't allowed on the Swiss passes," remarked Jack.
This, to me, sounded final, so far as Airolo was concerned, but not so with the Honourable Mrs. Winston!
"What do they do to you if you do go?" she asked, turning slightly pale.
"They fined an American gentleman who crossed the Simplon in his automobile last year, five thousand francs," answered Herr Widmer.
"Oh!" said she. "So an American did go over one of the passes? Well, thank you so much; we must decide what to do, and talk it over with you again later. Meanwhile, we're very happy, for it's lovely here."
Hardly had the door of the sitting-room closed on our host, when Molly, with the air of having a gun-powder plot to unfold, beckoned us both to come near. "I'll tell you what we'll do," said she, in a half-whisper, when surrounded by her body-guard of two. "First, we'll ask everybody in Lucerne whether there are any mules or donkeys on the spot, just in case Herr Widmer might be mistaken; if there aren't any, let's go over the St. Gothard in the middle of the night."
"Good heavens, what a desperate character I've married!" exclaimed Jack.
"Not at all. Don't you see, at night there would be nobody on their silly old Pass that they make such a fuss about. Even in daylight diligences don't go over the St. Gothard in our times, and at night | | 60 there'd be nothing, so we couldn't expose man or beast to danger. We'd rush the douanes, or whatever they call them on passes, and if we were caught, what are five thousand francs?"
"I wouldn't dream of letting you do such a thing for me," I broke in hurriedly. "If Airolo or the neighbourhood turns out to be the happy hunting ground of the sedate mule or pensive âne, I will simply take train--"
"You will take the train, if you take it, over Jack's and my dead bodies," remarked Molly coldly.
"It would be rather sport to rush the Pass at night," said Jack.
"Oh, you darling!" cried Molly, "I've never loved you so much."
This naturally settled it.
We walked down to the town by an exquisite path leading through dark, mysterious pine forests, where the slim, straight trunks of the tall trees seemed tightly stretched, like the strings of a great harp, and where melancholy, elusive music was played always by the wind spirits. In Lucerne we did not, as Molly had suggested, ask everybody to stand and deliver information, but we compromised by visiting tourists' bureaux. At these places the verdict was an echo of our landlord's, and I saw that Molly and Jack were glad. Having scented powder, they would have been disappointed if the midnight battle need not be fought.
Molly had never seen Lucerne, which was too beautiful for a fleeting glance. It was arranged that, after driving me over the Pass, for weal or woe, they should return. They would leave most of their luggage at the Sonnenberg, and come back | | 61 to spend some days, before continuing their tour as originally mapped out.
We slept that night in peace (it is wonderful how well you do sleep, even with a "mind diseased," after hours of racing through pure, fresh air on a motor car); and next day we began stealthy preparations for our adventure.
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