- CHAPTER VIII The Making of a Mystery
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The Making of a Mystery
Hid in .. .grey, young eyes."
IN my opinion it is a sign of strength rather than of weakness, to change one's mind with a good grace. For my part, I find pleasure in the experience, feeling refreshed by it, as if I had had a bath, and got into clean linen after a hot walk. Changing the mind gives also somewhat the same sensation as waking in the morning with the consciousness that no one on earth has ever seen this day before; or the satisfaction one has on breaking an egg, the inside of which no human eye has beheld until that moment. A change of mind bestows on one for the time being a new Ego; therefore I did not grudge myself my delight in the once despised Rhone Valley. Nevertheless, I was glad that the Mule of Brig had been one with which I could conscientiously decline to associate. My resolve not to take a pack-mule there had become so fixed, that to have uprooted it would have seemed a confession of failure. Besides, the need to go on to Martigny had given an excuse for another day with Jack, Molly, and Mercédès.
I had been as happy as a man whose duty it is to | | 89 be broken-hearted, may dare to be. But the next morning came at Martigny, and with my bath the news that the five promised men with their five mules awaited my choice.
I had secretly hoped that the day might be muleless till evening, for in that case Jack and Molly would probably stay on, and I should not be left alone in the world until to-morrow.
However, it was not to be. I gave myself the satisfaction of keeping the mules waiting, on the principle of always doing unto others what they have done unto you; and after a leisurely toilet, I went down to hold the review.
Four men, with four mules, started forward eagerly, jostling each other, at sight of me accompanied by the landlord. But one held back a little, with a modest dignity, as if he were too proud to push himself into notice, or too generous to exalt himself at the expense of others. He was a slim, dark man of middle height, past thirty in age, perhaps, with a look of the soldier in the bearing of his shoulders and head. He had very short black hair; high cheekbones, where the rich brown of his skin was touched with russet; deep-set, thoughtful eyes, and a melancholy droop of the moustache. His collar was incredibly tall and shiny, with turn-down points; he wore a red tie; his thick brown clothes might have been bought ready made in the Edgeware Road; evidently he had honoured the occasion with his Sunday best. While his comrades jabbered together, in patois which flung in a French word now and then, like a sop to Cerberus, he spoke not a word; yet I saw his lips tighten, as he laid his arm over the neck of a small but well-built mule of a colour which matched its master's clothing. The animal rubbed | | 90 a brown velvet, head against the brown waistcoat which, perhaps, covered a fast-beating heart. From that instant I knew that this was my man, and this my mule, as certainly as if they had been tattooed with my family crest and truculent motto: "What I will, I take."
"You've been a soldier, haven't you?" I asked the muleteer in French.
He saluted as he replied that he had, and that for several years he had served a French general, as orderly. His name was Joseph Marcoz, and--he added--he was a Protestant.
"And your mule? " I asked.
"Ah, but his persuasion? He is Protestant, too?" If Joseph had looked puzzled, I should have been disappointed, but a spark of humour lit the gloom of his sombre eye. "Finois is Pantheist, I think you call it, Monsieur. I am persuaded that he has a soul, for which there will be a place in the Beyond; and if he goes there first, I hope that he will be looking out for me."
It seemed a sudden drop, after this preface, to turn to bargaining. The landlord made the break for me, however, when he saw that I had set my mind upon Marcoz and his Finois. It then appeared that Joseph was not his own master, but worked for the real owner of Finois and other mules. The price he would have to ask for such a journey as I proposed was twenty-five francs a day. This would include the services of man and mule, food for the one, and fodder for the other. Without any beating down, I accepted the terms proposed, and the only part of the arrangement left in doubt was the time of starting. It was not eight o'clock, yet already the diligences | | 91 and private carriages going over the Grand St. Bernard had departed with a jingling of bells and sharp cracking of whips which had first informed me that it was day. With me, it was different, however. Speed was no longer my aim. I would not be in a hurry about arriving anywhere, and when I learned that there were a couple of small towns on the Pass, at either of which I could lie for a night, there seemed no fair excuse for keeping Jack and Molly at Martigny.
As I was wondering when they would wake, that I might consult them on the details of my journey, I glanced up and saw Molly, as fresh as if she had been born with the morning, standing on a balcony just over my head. In her hand was a letter, and as she waved a greeting, something came fluttering uncertainly down. I managed to catch this something before it touched earth, and had inadvertently seen that it was an unmounted photograph, probably taken by an amateur correspondent, when Molly leaned over the railing, with an excited cry. "Oh, don't look. Please, please don't look at that photograph!" she exclaimed.
"Of course I won't," I answered, slightly hurt. "What do you take me for?"
"I know you wouldn't mean to," she answered. "But you might glance involuntarily. You didn't see it, did you?"
Suddenly I was tempted to tease her. "Would it be so very dreadful if I did?"
"Yes, dreadful," she echoed solemnly. "Don't joke. Do please tell me, one way or the other, if you saw what was in the picture?"
"You may set your mind at ease. If it were to save my life, I couldn't tell whether the photograph | | 92 was of man, woman, boy, girl, or beast; and now I'm holding it face downward."
Molly broke into a laugh. "Good!" she exclaimed. "I'm coming to claim my property, and to look at your new acquisitions. I've been criticising them from the window, and I congratulate you."
A moment later she was beside me, had taken her mysterious photograph, and hidden it between the pages of a letter, covered with writing in a pretty and singularly individual hand. She explained that a whole budget of "mail" had been forwarded to Martigny, in consequence of a telegram sent to Lucerne, and then, as if forgetting the episode, she applied herself to winning the hearts of the man Joseph and the mule Finois.
Presently we were joined by Winston, and I broached the subject of the start. "The idea is," I said, "to begin as I mean to go on, with a walk of from twenty to thirty miles a day, according to the scenery and my inclination. Marcoz thinks that we could pass the night comfortably enough at a place called Bourg St. Pierre, even if we didn't get away from here for an hour or so. Then early to-morrow we would push on for the Hospice, and reach Aosta in the evening."
"It would be a mistake to leave here in the heat of the day, don't you think so?" said Jack. "Much better if we all stopped on, did some sightseeing, and then Molly and I bade you good speed about half-past seven to-morrow morning."
"But, Lightning Conductor, you forget we can't stay. You know--the letters," said Molly, with one of those deep, meaning glances which her lovely eyes had more than once sent Jack, when there was some question as to our ultimate parting. My heart | | 93 invariably responded to this glance with a pang, as a nerve responds to electricity. She wished to go away with her Lightning Conductor, and leave me at the mercy of a mule. Well, I would accept my lonely lot without complaining, but not without silently reflecting that happy lovers are selfish beings at best.
The forlorn consciousness that I was of superlative importance to no one was heavy upon me. I wanted somebody to care a great deal what became of me, and evidently nobody did. I was horribly homesick at breakfast, and the Winstons' gaiety in the face of our parting seemed the last straw in my burden. Perhaps Molly saw this straw in my eyes, for she looked at me half wistfully for a moment, and then said, "If we weren't sure this walking trip of yours will do you more good than anything else, we wouldn't let you leave us, for we have loved having you. We'll write to you at Aosta, where you will be staying for a couple of days, and give you our itinerary, with lots of addresses. By that time, you too will have made up your mind about your route. You will have decided whether to branch off among the bye-ways, or go straight on south, although you mustn't go too quickly, and get there too early--"
"I don't believe I shall have made up my mind to anything in Aosta," said I gloomily. "I feel that I shall still be unequal to that, or any other mental effort, and what is to become of me, Heaven, Joseph, and Finois alone know."
"Now, isn't it funny, I feel exactly the opposite? Something seems to tell me that at Aosta, if not before, you will, so to speak, 'read your title clear,'" said Molly, with aggravating cheerfulness. "As | | 94 soon as you've settled what way to take, you must write or wire; and who knows but by-and-bye we shall cross each other's path again, on the road to the Riviera?"
I revived a little. "I don't think you told me that you were going to run down there. Jack was talking about keeping mostly to Switzerland, I thought."
"But Switzerland will turn a cold shoulder upon us, as the autumn comes to spoil its disposition, and we were saying only this morning that it would be fine to make a rush to the Riviera, for a wind up to our trip."
"You see, Molly had a letter--" Jack had begun to speak with an absent-minded air, but suddenly recovered himself. "We don't care to get back to England till November," he hastily went on.
"I want Molly to have some hunting and a jolly round of country houses just to see what we can do to make an English winter tolerable. We've got four or five ripping invitations, and in January Mistress Molly herself will have to play hostess to a big house party, at Brighthelmston Park, which the mater and governor have lent us till next season."
If he had wanted to take my mind off an inadvertence, he could scarcely have manœuvred better, but why the inadvertence (if it had been one) could concern me, it was difficult to imagine.
There was a friendly dispute as to whether Molly and Jack should see me off, or whether I should wish them good-bye before starting on my journey; but in the end it was settled that I should be the one to leave first. Perhaps they believed that, if left to myself, I should never start at all; perhaps they wished to add photographs of the mule-party to their Kodak
In any case, at ten o'clock all that was left of my store was placed upon the back of Finois, who had the air of ignoring its existence, and mine as well. Had he been a horse, he would at least have deigned to exchange glances with me, friendly or otherwise; but being what he was, he looked everywhere except at me, as if he had been some haughty aristocrat conscientiously snubbing an offensive upstart. Joseph appeared to be the one human being of more importance for Finois than the moving bough of an inedible tree, bush, or shrub, and even Molly could win him to no change of facial expression, though he ate her offered sugar.
There was a pang when I turned my back irrevocably upon my friends, having waved my hand or my panama so often that to do so again would be ridiculous. We were off, Joseph, Finois, and I; there was no getting round it; and as we ambled away along the hot white road, we seemed but small things in the scheme of a busy and indifferent world--mere cards, shuffled by the hands of an expert, for a game in which our destination was unknown.
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