- CHAPTER VII At Last!
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A dare, a bliss, and a desire."
The further I penetrated into the mountains, the more like a vast engineering workshop did the long Alpine valley become. Yet, curiously enough, instead of destroying romance, this gave a certain majestic romance of its own; the romance of man's struggle to conquer the stupendous forces of Nature with his science. It was as if Vulcan's stithy had been dropped down into a profound ravine of the Alps, and the drone of machinery mingled with the music of the fleeting river--a strange diapason.
On the right of the highroad, the flat mountain face opened a black, egg-shaped mouth at me. I got out of the carriage to approach it, and while I stood peering down the dark throat, as if I were a Lilliputian doctor examining the tongue of Giant Gulliver, I was suddenly clapped upon the shoulder. It flashed into my mind that perhaps it was forbidden to stare a the tunnel-in-making; and turning to defend myself from a lash of red tape, with the adage that "a cat may look at a king," I saw a man I had known years ago smiling at me.
I have a worldly-minded cousin who says that she
Hardly had we come out from this weird place, which would have given Edgar Allan Poe an inspiration for a creepy tale, when Bolzano showed me a | | 80 relief gang of men getting ready to enter the tunnel, in a train consisting of wooden boxes drawn by a miniature locomotive. This was my chance. I was hurried off to his quarters, helped into rough, miner's clothing, with great boots up to my knees, and given a miner's lamp. Then, joining the eight hundred Italians,--a battalion of the soldiers of Labour,--we got into a box, and set off to relieve eight hundred other such soldiers who for eight hours had toiled in the schisty heart of the mountain.
I felt as if suddenly, between sleeping and waking, I had plunged deep into the dusk of dreamland. We rumbled through a lofty egg-shaped vault, lined with masonry, lighted waveringly, with strange play of shadow, by our many lamps. This phase of the dream seemed to last a long time; and then the train of boxes slowed down, for we had reached the danger-point, a part of the tunnel where the hidden Genii of the Mountain had planned a trap to upset all geological expectations. Having allowed the engineers to penetrate thus far, they had suddenly flooded the tunnel with cataracts of water from fissures in the rock, and had laughed wild, echoing laughter because they had contrived to delay the work for a year, and cause the spending of much extra money.
The dream showed me now a long iron cage, shoring up the crumbling walls of the excavation; and through this cage we crept like a procession of wary mice, suddenly putting on speed at the end, till we reached the tunnel-head, and found another train preparing to go out.
Here the dream flung me into a teeming Inferno of darkness and lost spirits who (spent with eight | | 81 hours' monotonous toil in this Circle) had dropped asleep, sitting half-naked in the line of boxes which would bear them away to a spell of rest. They had fallen into pathetic attitudes of collapse, some lying back with their mouths open, some resting their heads on folded arms, some drooping on comrades' shoulders.
As our train-load of Activity came to a stand, this other train-load of Exhaustion rumbled slowly away, the smoky lamps glinting on polished, olive-coloured flesh, on hairy arms, and swarthy faces shut to consciousness.
Close to the tunnel-head we alighted, and went on into the dream on foot, the gallery contracting to a few feet in height, where a group of black figures bent over rock-drills which creaked and groaned. I saw the drill-holes filled with dynamite, and retired with the others while the fuse was lighted. I heard from afar off the thunderous detonations as the rock-face was shattered. I saw the de débris being cleared away, before the drills should begin to grind again; and the remembrance that, in another rat-hole on the Swiss side, another party of workers was patiently advancing towards us, in precisely the same way, sent a mysterious thrill through my blood.
"Suppose the two galleries don't meet end to end?" I spoke out my thought.
"But they will," said Bolzano. "Our calculations are precise, and we have allowed for an error of two inches: I do not think there will be more. There is a great system of triangulation across the mountains, and every few months our reckonings are verified. By-and-bye, we shall hear the sound of each other's drills; then, down will come the last | | 82 dividing wall of rock, and Swiss and Italians will be shaking hands."
I think, in coming out of the dark tunnels and windy galleries, I felt somewhat as Jonah must have felt after he had been discarded in distaste by the whale. The light dazzled my eyes. I could have shouted aloud with joy at sight of the sun. I made Bolzano breakfast with me in the little inn at Iselle, and got upon my way again, at something past noon. The vast turmoil of the growing railway was left behind. It was like putting down a volume of Walt Whitman, and taking up Tennyson.
The Pass had the extraordinary individuality of one face as compared with another. It had not even a family resemblance to the St. Gothard. The air was sweet with the good smell of newly cut wood and resinous pines. There were sudden glimpses of icy peaks, cut diamonds in the sun, seen for a moment, then swallowed up by stealthily creeping white clouds, or caressed by them with a benediction in passing. Thin streaks of cascades on precipitous rocks made silver veinings in ebony. Side valleys opened unexpectedly, and one knew from hearsay that gold mines were hidden there. Treading the road built by Napoleon, I was enveloped in the gloom of the wondrous Gondo Schlucht, to come out into a broad valley,--a green amphitheatre, above which a company of white, mountain gods sat grouped to watch a cloud-fight.
If I had not been heart-broken by the cruelty of Helen Blantock, I should have been almost minded to thank her for sending me here. But then,--I reminded myself hastily when this thought winked at me over my shoulder,--I was stunned still, by my heavy disappointment. I was not conscious to the
I refused to be interested in the old Hospice of St. Bernard, or the newer Hospice, built by order of Napoleon, because neither seemed to me the real thing. If I could not see the Hospice of St. Bernard on the Pass of Great St. Bernard, I would not see any other hospices called by his name. If possible, I would have gone by them with my eyes shut; but at the new Hospice the yapping of a dozen adorable puppies in a kennel opposite lured me, and I paused to talk to them. They did not understand my language, and this was disappointing; but if I had not stopped I should have missed a short cut which I half saw, half suspected, dimly zigzagging down the mountain into an extraordinarily deep valley, and tending in the direction of Brig. It would have been a pity to pass it by, for though I often thought myself lost, I eventually caught sight of a town, lying far below, which could be no other than the one for which I was bound. After three hours of fast walking down from the Hospice, I plunged through an old archway into the main street of Brig.
Coming into it, I stopped to gaze up in astonishment at an enormous house which looked to me as big as Windsor Castle. Indeed, to call it a house does not express its personality at all; yet it was hardly magnificent enough for a castle. At each corner was an immense tower, ornamented with a big bulb of copper, like a gigantic and glorified Spanish onion. A beautiful Renaissance gallery, flung across from one tall building to another, lent grace to the otherwise too solid pile, and I guessed | | 84 that I must have come upon the ancient stronghold and mansion of the famous Stockalper family, still existing and still one of the most important in Switzerland. In the Pass I had seen the towers built by the first Stockalper--that Gaspar who in mediæval days was called "King of the Simplon"; who protected travellers and controlled the caravan traffic between Italy and Switzerland; now, to see the house which he had founded still occupied by descendants, fixed more pictorially in my mind the stirring legends connected with the man.
The little town of Brig seemed noisy and gay after the great silence of the Pass. Church bells were ringing, whips were cracking; in the central place there were crowding shops, bright with colour,and lights were beginning to shine out from the windows of the hotels.
I was to meet the Winstons at the Hôtel Couronne; and as I ventured to show my travel-stained person in the hall, I was greeted by a vision: Molly in white muslin, dressed for dinner.
"What, you already!" she exclaimed. "You must have come over the Pass by steam or electricity. We didn't expect you for an hour. We've lots, to tell you, and oh, I've bought you a sweet revolver, which you are always to have about you, on walking trip, though Jack laughed at me for doing it. But now, for your adventures."
In a few words I sketched them, and learned that the motor had again pulled wool over the eyes the law; then Molly must have seen in mine that there was a question which I wished, but hesitated, to ask. If a man may have a beam in his eye, why not a mule?
"We've been interviewing animals of various | | 85 sorts for you all day," she said. "I've had a kind of employment agency for mules, and have taken their characters and capacities. But--"
"There's a 'but,' is there?" I cut into her ominous pause.
"Well, the nicest beasts are all engaged for days ahead, or else their owners can't spare them for a long trip; or else they're too young; or else they're too old; or else they're hideous. At least, there's one who's hideous, and I'm sorry to say he's the only one you can have."
"''Twas ever thus, from childhood's hour.'"
"But the landlord says there are dozens of mules at Martigny."
"A mere mirage."
"No, he has telephoned. But you'll look at the one here, I suppose, if only as a matter of form? I think he's outside now."
"Let him be brought before me," I said, with the air of a tyrant in a melodrama; and, by the way, I have always thought it would be very pleasant being a tyrant by profession, like Him of Syracuse, for instance. You could do all the things you wanted to do, without consulting the convenience of anybody else, or having it on your conscience that you hadn't.
At this moment Jack appeared. It seemed that he had been putting the mule (the one available mule) through his paces, and the wretched fellow was laughing. "It's not funny, at all," said I, thinking it was the situation which amused him. But Jack explained that it wasn't that. "It's the brute's tail," said he. "When you see it, you'll know what I mean."
I did know, at sight. The organ--if a mule's tail can be called an organ--had mean proportions and a | | 86 hideous activity which expressed to my mind a base and depraved nature. Had there been no other of his kind on earth, I would still have refused to take this beast as my companion; and after a few moments' feverish discussion, it was arranged that after all we must go through the Rhone Valley to-morrow to Martigny.
But the Rhone Valley, radiant in morning light, heaped coals of fire upon my head. I had maligned perfection. There was all the difference between the country between Brig and Martigny seen from a railway-carriage window, and seen from a motor car, that there is between the back of a woman's head when she is giving you the cut direct, and her face when she is smiling on you.
The Rhone Valley tame! The Rhone Valley monotonous! It was poetry ready for the pen of Shelley, and a scene for the brush of Turner. The little towns sleeping on the shoulders of the mountains, or rising turreted from hardy rocks bathed by the golden river; the peeps up cool lateral valleys to blue glaciers; the near green slopes and distant, waving seas of snowy splendour left a series of pictures in the mind; and best of all was Martigny's tower pointing a slender finger skyward from its high hill.
Late in the afternoon, as the car whirled us into the garden of the Hôtel Mont Blanc, we came face to face with two mules. They had brought back a man and a girl from some excursion. The landlord was at the door to receive his guests. Jack, Molly, and I flung the same question at his head, at the same moment. Was the situation as it had been when he telephoned? Could I hire a mule and a man, not for a day or two, but for a long journey--a journey half across the world if I liked?| | 87
The answer was that I might have five mules and five men for a journey all across the world if it were my pleasure.
It sounded like a problem in mental arithmetic, but I thanked my stars that there seemed no further need for me to struggle over its solution.
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