- CHAPTER VI The Wings of the Wind
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The Wings of the Wind
Perilous in steep places,
Soft in the level races,
Where sweeping in phantom silence the cloudland flies."
THE wind howled a menace to Mercédès, as she glided down the winding road towards the comfortable, domestic-looking suburbs of Lucerne. Banks of cloud raced each other across the sky, and, crossing the bridge over the Reuss, we saw that the waters of the Lake, turquoise yesterday, were to-day a sullen indigo. The big steamers rolled at their moorings; white-crested waves were leaping against the quays, and thick mists clung like rolls of wool to the lower slopes of Pilatus.
Molly's spirits rose as the mercury in the barometer fell. "Would you care for people if they were always good-tempered, or weather if it were always fair?" she asked me (we were sitting together in the tonneau, Jack driving). "I revel in storms, and if we have one to-night, when we are on the Pass, one of the dearest wishes of my life will be gratified. 'A storm on the St. Gothard!' Haven't the words a thunder-roll? Sunlight and mountain passes don't belong together. I like to think of great Alpine roads as the fastnesses of giants, who threaten death to puny man when he ventures into their power."| | 63
It had been arranged that we should "potter" (as Winston called it) round the arms of the star-fish lake, until we reached Flüelen; that from there we should steal as far as we dared up the Reussthal while daylight lasted, dine at some village inn, and then, instead of returning to the lowlands of Lucerne, make a dash across the mighty barrier that shut us away from Italy. Under a lowering sky, and buffeted by short, sharp gusts of wind, which seemed the heralds of fiercer blasts, we swung along the reedy shores of the narrowing lake, the broken sides of the Rigi standing finely up on our right hand. Winston was satirical about the poor Rigi and its railway, calling it the Primrose Hill and the Devil's Dyke of Switzerland, the paradise of trippers, a mountain whose sides are hidden under cataracts of beer-bottles; but from our point of view, the vulgarities of the maligned mountain were mellowed by distance, and I neither could nor would look upon it as contemptible.
Leaving the Lake of the Forest Cantons, we spun along the margin of the tamer sheet of Zug, to pass, beyond Arth, into the great wilderness caused by the fearful landslide of a century ago, when a mighty mass of rock and earth split off from the main bulk of the Rossberg and thundered down into the valley. The slow processes of nature had done much to cover up decently all traces of the Titan's rage, but the huge, bare scar on the side of the Rossberg still told its tale of tragedy. By the peaceful Lowerzer See the road undulated pleasantly, and at Schwyz (the hub of Swiss history) we had tea, the torn and imposing pyramids of the two Myten bravely rearing their heads above the mists that encumbered the valleys.| | 64
There was no need to hurry, for we had the night before us, so we passed slowly, halting often, along the marvellous Axenstrasse, while Jack distilled into Molly's willing ears legends from the old heroic days of Switzerland, before it became the happy haven of hotel-keepers. From the car we could note the characteristics of the Cantons which had entered into the famous bond; pastoral and leafy Unterwalden, with green fields and orchards; Schwyz, also green and fertile; but Uri (the cold, highland partner in this great alliance), a country of towering mountains and savage rocks. Molly wanted to get a boat, and row across to the Rütli to stand on that spot where, in 1307, Walter Fürst, Arnold of Melchthal, and Werner Stauffacher took the famous oath, and very reluctantly she gave up the wish when Jack pointed to the rising waves, painting in lurid colours the sudden and dangerous storms that sweep the Lake of Uri. When he went on, however, to insinuate doubts as to the historic accuracy of these old stories, and to hint that even William Tell might himself be an incorporeal legend, Molly clapped a little hand over his mouth, crying out that even if he had tried to destroy the Maid of Orleans he must spare William Tell. Further on, she made us confide the car to Gotteland on the Axenstrasse, while we descended the path to Tell's chapel and did reverence to the hero's memory. On such a day as this must it have been that Tell leaped ashore from the boat, leaving Gessler to look after himself; for the blasts were shrieking down the lake, and the waves dashed their foam over the ledge where stands the chapel.
Jack stopped several times in the rock galleries of the Axenstrasse before we reached Fü- | | 65 elen; consequently it was evening when we slipped into little Altdorf, where Molly insisted on making a curtsey to the statue of Tell and his agreeable little boy. Winston predicted that we should probably not be challenged until we got to Göschenen, as up to that point the road does not take on a true Alpine character. The storm (which seemed rising to a point of fury) was in our favour, too, for no one would choose to be out on such a night, save mad English automobilists and wilful American girls.
Dusk was beginning to shadow the Reussthal, as we ran past the railway station at Erstfeld, and began at length the ascent of the St. Gothard Road. The great railway (of which we had caught glimpses as we came along the lake) was now our companion, while on the other hand roared the tumbling Reuss. So hoarse and insistent was the voice of the stream that Molly suggested it should be "had up for brawling." It did us the service, however, of drowning the noise of our motor, at all times a discreetly silent machine; and as Jack had given orders that the big Bleriots should not be lighted (two good oil lamps showing us the way), we had high hopes that we might fly by unnoticed, on the wings of the storm. In Amsteg no one seemed to look upon us with surprise, and here the road turned, to worm itself into the heart of the mountains, while the railway, often disappearing into tunnels, ran far above our heads.
By the time we had reached Gurtnellen night had fallen black and close, and Molly issued an edict that we should dine in the open air, instead of seeking the doubtful comforts of a village inn, where, too, we might suffer from the solicitude of some officious policeman. The car accordingly was | | 66 run under the lee of a great rock, the ever-inspired Gotteland extemporised a shelter with the water-proof rugs, and the blue flame of the chafing-dish presently cheered us with its glow. The wind belllowed along the precipices, the Reuss shouted in its rocky bed, and once an express from Italy to the north passed high above us, streaming its lights through the darkness like sparks from a boy's squib. Yet those plutocratic travellers up in the wagons lits were not having anything like the "good time" we enjoyed, warm in our motor coats, sitting snug behind our rock, a lamp from the car illuminating our little party and shining on Molly's piquant profile as she brewed savoury messes in her magic cauldron. This was testing thoroughly the resources of the automobile, which was playing the part of travelling kitchen and larder as well as travelling chariot, and could no doubt be made, with a little ingenuity, to play the parts also of travelling bed and tent. Yet, as I said all this aloud to Jack, my mind leaped forward to other nights which I should soon be spending alone under the stars, and I thought tenderly of my aluminium stove and tent, my sleeping-sack, and the other camping tools I had bought in Bern.
From where we lay hid behind our rock to Airolo was only some thirty-two miles, and the car ate up distance with so voracious an appetite, that it was clear we should arrive in the little Italian town in the dead waste and middle of the night. To travel a forbidden road on an automobile, and then to knock up a snoring innkeeper at one in the morning, to ask him where we could find a donkey, seemed to be straining unduly the sense of humour; so after consultation we decided that we should leave
Molly had produced excellent coffee; the smoke of our cigarettes mingled its perfume with the night air. Our position had in it something unique, for while we were "in the heart of one of nature's most savage retreats" (as said a guide-book of my boyhood), we were at the same time enjoying the refinements of civilisation, and I suggested to Winston that our bivouac would form a fit subject for a picture labelled, in the manner of some Dutch masters, "Automobilists Reposing."
By the time Gotteland had packed up everything, and we were seated once more in the car, it was nearly eleven o'clock at night. Coming out from the shelter of our rock, so fierce a blast of wind smote us that Molly would, I think, have been carried off her feet had I not given her a steadying arm. We had to cram our caps on our heads, or the wind would have torn them from us, and the voice of the motor was swallowed up in the shrieking of the tempest. Molly was evidently destined to have her wish.
The car ran swiftly up the road to Wasen, and some twinkling lights and a huge crimson eye at the entrance to the great tunnel told us that we had done the ten miles to Göschenen. No one stirred in the streets of the village, and, gliding cat-like past the station, Jack put the car at the beginning of the real ascent of the famous St. Gothard Road. The higher we went, the more wildly roared the storm. There was something appalling in the fierce volleyings of the wind along the stark and broken faces of the precipice: it was like the rattle of thunder. In the sombre defile of the Schöllenen the air | | 68 rushed as through a funnel. We could see nothing save the thread-like road illuminated by our steadfast lanterns--the sole beacon of safety in this welter. We had a ghostly impression of winding through a narrow gorge, the river roaring in its depths; then, dashing through an avalanche gallery (where the lights played strange tricks with the vaulted roof), we came out upon the Devil's Bridge. The spray from the Reuss, which here drops a full hundred feet into the abyss, lashed our faces as with whips; the storm leaped at us out of the blackness like a wolf; the car quivered, and for an instant it seemed that we should be hurled against the parapet of the bridge. But we passed unharmed, and a quarter of a mile further on Winston stopped in the welcome shelter of the Urner Loch, a tunnelled passage in the rock.
We gasped out broken expressions of a fearful joy; then, seeing that Molly was well, and that the wind-wolf's teeth had torn nothing from the car, Jack went full speed ahead again, steering along the open Urseren Valley, where we had fleeting glimpses of green fields instead of granite rocks. Thus we came to Andermatt, where not the eye of a mouse seemed open to mark our quick and stealthy passage. We were now on that great mountain highroad that slants in a straight line across almost all Switzerland from Coire to Martigny; but we kept on it only for a little while, to steal through Hospenthal--as dead asleep as the other villages (for Labour had not yet begun to waken in its hard bed), and take the southern road that leads to Italy.
Thus far, audacity had been laurelled by success. It was near one in the morning, and we were spinning fast up a valley which showed bleakly in the | | 69 flying lights of our car. Soon Jack called to us that we had crossed the border line of the Canton Ticino, and presently through the blackness twinkled the little lakes which mark the summit of the Pass. We were nearly seven thousand feet above the sea, and suddenly, as we crossed the ridge and began to sail down the dismal Val Tremolo towards Airolo, the great wind that had made majestic music all day and night ceased to blow. We ran into a zone of motionless, ice-cold air, and what seemed an unnatural silence, only the hum of the motor breaking the frozen stillness of these high Alpine solitudes.
The road plunged to lower levels in interminable windings, the car swooping in a series of bird-like flights, exhilarating to the nerves, thrilling to the imagination; for in the blackness that held us we could but guess at abysses which dropped away almost from under the tyres of our wheels. Sometimes we dashed over foaming rivers, and soon we sped through Airolo, where yet no one moved. Now the loud-voiced Ticino was our companion, and we swept down through an open valley to Faido, where we met the first human being we had seen since we left Gurtnellen. It was a very old man, with a red cap, like a stocking, pulled close upon his head. He had a rake on his shoulder, and we were close on him before he knew; for the car was coasting, and ran with hardly any noise save the whir of the chains. For a flashing instant that old face shone out of the circle of our lights, concave with astonishment; then we lost it forever.
"No fear that he will telephone to have us stopped lower down," said Molly. "He thinks we are super-natural, and will go home and tell his grandchildren | | 70 that he has seen witches tearing home after a revel up among the glaciers."
Faster still the car flew down the road. The air that streamed past us held the faint, elusive perfume of Italy, which softly hints the presence of the walnut, the chestnut, and the grape. Through village after village we swept at speed, our lamps shining now on mulberry and fig trees, and on vines trained over trellises held up by splintered granite slabs. Next we came suddenly upon an Italian-looking town with bad pavé and dimly lighted streets, where three or four workmen, early astir, stared at us in bewilderment. It was Bellinzona; but passing through, we came out presently on the margin of an immense sheet of water, and it was only in Locarno on the edge of Lago Maggiore, when dawn was paling the eastern sky, that Jack at last drew rein.
No one was tired; no one wanted to rest. On the contrary, our rapid flight over the Alps had intoxicated us with the sense of speed; and we were all excitedly for going on until we should reach the frontier. As pink dawn blossomed in the sky, like a heavenly orchard, and the mountain tops were beaten into copper, we glided along the edge of the lake, past picturesque villages and campanili, and cypress trees. At the Italian frontier there were the usual tedious formalities of payment and sealing the car with a leaden seal; but when all this was done by sleepy officials, surly at our early passage, though little recking of our crimes, we sailed on again, Molly driving now, through a landscape magically clear in the young morning light.
Suddenly we all started in joyous astonishment, and Molly brought the car to a stop. Each had seen the same thing, each had been struck with the same | | 71 thought. Here, at last, we had found what we had come so far to seek; what Switzerland denied us, Italy offered. Standing alone in a field by the road-side was a small, dark grey donkey, tethered to a stone; and no other living being was in sight. The creature was not eating; it was only thinking; and it looked at us with an eye that seemed to speak of loneliness and the desire for human fellowship. "The very thing for you!" cried Molly; and the long-sought-for treasure, finding itself observed, flicked one of its heavy ears.
Gotteland and I dismounted and went nearer. As we approached, the donkey nickered; and as its family is famed for reticence, such proof of friendliness made me yearn to possess the deserted little beast. But its legs were very thin, its hoofs exceedingly small, and the thought of loading so frail a structure with the great packs that held my camping kit seemed a barbarity. Meanwhile Gotteland, who knows something of everything, had carefully examined the tiny animal, and just as I was growing sentimental over its perfections, he broke the charm by pronouncing it to be incredibly old, and unfit for work. He also drew my attention to a disagreeable sore upon its shoulder. It was sad; but indisputably the man was right; in any case there was no one with whom a bargain could have been arranged, and with poignant regret I was forced to leave my treasure-trove to its solitary thoughts. After this we did not stop again until Molly steered the car to the door of a beautiful hotel in Pallanza, where the shirt-sleeved concierge hurried into his gold-laced coat, to receive in fitting style the unusually early guests.
My first care, after coffee and a bath, was to ex- | | 72 amine the landlord of the hotel on the momentous question of mules and donkeys. At Lucerne, I told him, they had assured me that the animals "flourished" in Canton Ticino and the neighbourhood of the Italian Lakes. But I met with no encouragement. Mules and donkeys were rarely seen in these parts, the host declared. True, a few peasants employed them in the fields; but those were poor things, unfit for an excursion such as Monsieur purposed. At Piedimulera, perhaps, Monsieur would find what he wanted; yes, at Piedimulera, or if not, at Domodossola; or--his face brightened--in the Valais, preferably at Brig. Yes, he was certain that mules and asses in abundance could be found at Brig in the Rhone Valley. Brig! My heart sank. It was the old story. Counterfeiting patience, I explained that I had an antipathy to the Rhone Valley, and had actually crossed the Alps to find animals in Italy rather than be driven to seek them in Brig.
Crushed by a hopeless, answering gesture, I made my report to Molly and Jack. "It will end," I said, "in my traversing the world, and eventually arriving in Japan, still searching the rara avis. By that time I shall have become a harmless lunatic, and people will treat my babblings with indulgent forbearance, when I go from house to house begging to be supplied with a pack-mule or a pack-donkey."
At déjeuner, in a garden which was a successful imitation of Eden, the situation did not, however, look so dark. The perfume of flowers, distilled by the hot sun, was of Araby the Blest; the Borromean Islands spread their enchantments before us, across a glittering blue expanse of lake, and the world was after all endurable, though empty of mules. Be- | | 73 sides, Molly was a sweet consoler. She dwelt on the hopeful suggestion in the name Piedimulera. It could not be wholly deceiving, she argued. Why name a place Foot-of-a-Mule, if there were no mules there?
"If there aren't," I exclaimed, "I swear to you that I will, by fair means or foul, dispose of at Piedimulera all the things with which I fondly thought to deck the animal my fancy had painted. Everything I bought at Bern shall go, if I have to dig a grave by night in which to bury them. This is a vow, and though my heart be wrung, I'll keep it."
Molly listened to this outburst as gravely as if I had been threatening to sacrifice a son, did not some incredible good fortune supply a ram caught by his horns in the bushes.
For Piedimulera we left in the afternoon, somewhat buoyed up by the omen of the name. The way led back towards the Alps, up a broad and beautiful valley strewn with evidences of the works for the Simplon railway: embankments, bridges, quarries, and occasional groups of workmen hauling rhythmically on the many ropes of a pile-driver. Presently we swerved from the main road, and crossed the valley bed, obedient to the map, which was our only guide to Piedimulera. We passed one or two romantically placed, ancient villages, each of which I hoped might be our goal; but, as usual in life, the town for which we were bound did not appear as alluring as other towns, where we had no need to stop.
"I feel there will be not so much as the ghost of a long-perished Roman mule in this hamlet," I said despondently, hoping that Molly would contradict me. But she, too, looked anxious, now that the | | 74 great moment had come, for we were driving into a town, at the mouth of a deep gorge already dusky with purpling shadows, and there was no doubt that it was Piedimulera.
The gloom of the twilight settled upon our spirits, dissimulate as we might, as the car swept into the cobble-paved courtyard of an albergo, a venerable grandfather of a hostelry, old, grim, and forbidding. Out came a large, fair man to welcome us, with calculation in his cold grey eye. He looked to me like a spider in his web, greeting some inviting flies. We broke the ice by asking for coffee, and when we were told that we must have it without milk, as there were no cows within a radius of many miles, I would have staked all my possessions (especially those acquired at Bern) that there would be no such comparatively useless animals as mules or donkeys.
Instinct is seldom wrong. If ever there was nothing in a name, there was nothing in that of Piedimulera, which had evidently been applied in sheer mockery, or because, untold generations ago, the foot of that rare creature, a mule, had been preserved here in a museum. When the landlord found that we did not intend to stop overnight, unless mules were at once forthcoming, he visibly lost interest in us, as inedible insects. He shrugged his shoulders at the bare idea that Piedimulera might shelter such creatures as we were mad enough to desire, and assured us that there was not the least use in trying Domodossola. We had much better spend the night with him, and to-morrow morning go on as best we might to Brig. No? Then he washed his hands of us. I did not give my treasures to this person: | | 75 rather would I have burnt all, than picture him battening on my Instantaneous Breakfasts. Molly would have had me keep them, at least until we knew what fate awaited us at Domodossola. The moment I had irrevocably parted with my outfit, bought in happier days, I should find a mule, and how annoyed would I be, she prophesied. But I was adamant. Had I not made a vow? Besides, if I were to find a mule or donkey the moment I had got rid of his paraphernalia, that alone was an inducement to throw the cargo overboard.
On our way to Domodossola, I saw a pretty dark-eyed young woman, with a cherubic baby in her arms, standing in the doorway of a tumble-down cottage. Evidently she was waiting to greet her husband when he should come home, weary with his long day's work. Quickly I made a decision; and with the same abruptness I had used in urging Molly to draw up before the too attractive shop in Bern, I begged her now to stop. My white elephants were stowed away in separate bundles in the tonneau, where, ever since Lucerne, they had been the cause of cramps and "pins and needles" to the feet of any member of the party who sat there. I ruthlessly collected the lot, and, well-nigh swamped by the load, I carried them to the cottage door, where I laid all at the feet of the young mother. She suddenly became an incarnate point of admiration, and could scarcely believe that I was sane, or that she was not dreaming when I explained my wish to make her a present. If I had stayed an hour, I could not have dissipated her bewilderment, so I left the things to speak for themselves--if she did not take them for infernal machines and throw them into the river.| | 76
It was evening when we arrived at Domodossola, and I felt nothing save cold resignation when told emphatically by the concierge of our chosen hotel that my quest was hopeless.
"You will have to go to Brig," he said; and though he was an intelligent and worthy man, I could have smitten him to earth.
"You must abandon me to my fate," I told Jack and Molly. "Il est trop fort. If I'm to walk the face of the earth, I want a pack-mule and a man; and, 'somehow, somewhere, somewhen,' I mean to have them. But you've more than done your duty by me. You can get back to Lucerne from here comfortably, without daring any more mountain passes and fines for law-breaking. Since to Brig I must go, I'll make a virtue of necessity, and walk over the Simplon, to see the tunnel and railway works."
"Walk, if you will," said Molly; "but if I know my Lightning Conductor and myself, we'll see you through to the end, be it bitter or sweet."
"Echo answers," added Jack. "If you want to see things clearly, you must have daylight, and if we wish to escape the arm of the law, we must fly by night, which means that we can't join forces till the journey's end."
"You needn't think we're sacrificing ourselves, for we should love it," Molly capped him. "We're having the jam of adventure spread thick on our bread now."
"Well, then, everything's settled," said Jack, "except the start."
Molly thought a day in Domodossola too much. It was decided, therefore, that they should rest till eleven, and that the motor should be ready at midnight. They could reach Brig between two and | | 77 three, and being a posting town, the hotel people were sure to be up. I was to start early in the morning, and meet my friends at Brig, after walking over the Pass.
I saw them off, and then plunged fathoms deep into sleep, dreaming of a land flowing with mules and donkeys. At five, I was up, and was surprised to find that the despised Domodossola was a beautiful and interesting old town, with curiously Spanish effects in its shadowy streets, lined with ancient, arcaded houses. I thought to save time and fatigue by taking a carriage to the frontier village of Iselle at the foot of the Pass, and was glad I had done so, for the road was rough and covered inches deep with a deposit of peculiar, grey dust. But things mended when we climbed a hill, turned out of the main valley, and followed the course of the river Diveria into a lateral gorge of the mountains, the real porch-way or entrance of the Simplon Pass.
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