- CHAPTER IX The Brat
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"Be kind and courteous to this gentleman; hop in his walk and gambol in his eyes."—SHAKESPEARE.
IN beginning our tramp, I trudged step for step with Joseph, who had Finois' bridle over his arm, and answered my questions regarding the various features of the landscape. Thus I was not long in discovering that he had a knowledge of the English language of which he was innocently proud. I made some enquiry concerning a fern which grew above the roadside, when we had passed through Martigny Bourg, and Joseph answered that one did not see it often in this country. "It is a seldom plant," said he. "It live in high up places, where it was difficile to catch, for one shall have to walk over rocks, which do not--what you say? They go down immediately, not by-and-bye."
I liked this description of a precipice, and later, when we had engaged in a desultory discussion on politics, I was delighted when Joseph spoke solemnly of the "Great Mights." He had formed opinions of Lord Beaconsfield and Gladstone, but had not yet had time to do so of Mr. Chamberlain, for, said he, "these things take a long time to think about." Fifteen or twenty years from now, he will probably be ready with an opinion on men and matters of the present. He asked gravely if there had | | 97 not been a great difference between the two long-dead Prime Ministers?
"How do you mean?" I enquired. "A difference in politics or disposition?"
"They would not like the same things," he explained. "The Lord Beaconsfield, par exemple, he would not have enjoyed to come such a tour like this, that will take you high in icy mountains. He would want the sunshine, and sitting still in a beautiful chaise with people to listen while he talked, but Monsieur Gladstone, I think he would love the mountains with the snow, as if they were his brothers."
"You are right," I said. "They were his brothers. One can fancy edelweiss growing freely on Mr. Gladstone. His nature was of the white North. You have hit it, Joseph."
"But I do not see a thing that I have hit," he replied, bewildered, glancing at the stout staff in his hand, and then at Finois, who had evidently not been brought up on blows. It was then my turn to explain; and so we tossed back and forth the conversational shuttlecock, until I found myself losing straw by straw my load of homesickness, and becoming more buoyant of spirit in the muleteer's society.
After the splendours of the Simplon it seemed to me, as the windings of the Great St. Bernard Pass shut us farther and farther away from Martigny, that this was in comparison but a peaceful valley. It was a cosey cleft among the mountains, with just room for the river to be frilled with green between its walls. There was a look of homeliness about the sloping pastures, which slept in the sunshine, lulled by the song of the swift-flowing Dranse.| | 98
The name "Great St. Bernard " had conjured hopes of rugged grandeur, which did not seem destined to be fulfilled, and at last I confided my disappointment to Joseph. "If Monsieur will wait an all little hour, perhaps he will yet be surprised," he answered, breaking into French. "We have a long way to go, before we come to the best."
We walked briskly, lunched at the dull village of Orsi dères; and delaying as short a time as possible, pushed on--indeed, we pushed on much farther than Joseph had expected, when he suggested our sleeping at Bourg St. Pierre. "We might go higher," said he, "before dark, but it would be late before we could reach the Hospice, and there is no place where we could rest for the night after St. Pierre, unless Monsieur would care to stop at the Cantine de Proz."
"What is the Cantine de Proz?" I asked, trudging along the stony road, with my eyes held by a huge snow mountain which had suddenly loomed above the green shoulders of lesser hills, like a great white barrier across the world.
"The Cantine de Proz is but a house, nothing more, Monsieur, in the loneliest and wildest part of the Pass--how lonely, and how wild, you cannot guess yet by what you have seen. The people who keep the house are good folk, and they live there all the year round, even in winter, when the snow is at the second-story windows, and they must cut narrow paths, with tall white walls, before they can feed their cattle. These people sell you a cup of coffee, or a glass of beer, or of liqueur, and they have a spare room, which is very clean. If any traveller wishes to spend a night, they will make him as comfortable as they can. One English gentle- | | 99 man came, and liked the place so well, that he stayed for months, and wrote a book, I have been told. But it is desolate. Perhaps Monsieur would think it too triste even for a night. At St. Pierre there is at least a little life. And the hôtel 'Au Déjeuner de Napoléon,' I think it will amuse Monsieur."
"That is an odd name for a hotel," said I.
"You see, Monsieur, it was made famous because of the déjeuner which Napoléon took there on his march with his army of 30,000 across the Pass in the month of May, 1800, and that is the reason of the name. The madame who has the house now, is a grand-daughter of the innkeeper of that day; and she will show you the room where Napoléon breakfasted, with all the furniture just as it was then, and on the wall the portraits of her grand-parents, who waited on the great man."
"At all events, we will rest and have something to eat there," I said. "Then, if it be not too late, we might push on further. I like the idea of the lonely Cantine de Proz."
My opinion of the Pass was changing for the better, before we reached the straggling town of stony pavements, which could not have a more appropriate patron than St.Pierre. True, our road was always narrow, and poorly kept for a great mountain highway; so far, none of the magnificent engineering which impressed one on the Simplon. But here and there dazzling white peaks glistened like frozen tidal waves against the blue, and the Dranse had a particular charm of its own. Joseph said little when I patronised the Pass with a few grudging words of commendation. He had the secretive smile of a man who hides something up his sleeve.| | 100
It was five o'clock when we arrived at Bourg St. Pierre, and having climbed a dark and hilly street, closely shut in with houses which age had not made beautiful, Joseph pointed out a neat, white inn, standing at the left of the road.
"That is the 'Déjeuner de Napoléon,'" said he, "and near by are some Roman remains which will interest Monsieur if--"
"By Jove, two donkeys!" I broke in, heedless of antiquities, in my surprise at seeing two of those animals which experience had taught me to look upon as more rare than Joseph's "seldom plant." Two donkeys in front of the inn. Where on earth can they have sprung from? I would have given a good deal for that sight a few days ago, but now"--and I glanced at the dignified Finois-- I can regard them simply with curiosity."
"I have been over this Pass more than twenty times," said Joseph (who was a native of Chamounix, I had learned), "yet rarely have I met with ânes. And see, Monsieur, the woman who is with them. She is not of the country, nor of that part of Italy which we enter below the Pass, at Aosta. It is a strange costume. I do not know from what valley it comes."
"Well," said I, as we drew near to the group in the road outside the hotel, "if that girl, or at any rate her hat, did not come from the Riviera somewhere, I will eat my panama."
Involuntarily I hastened my steps, and Joseph politely followed suit, dragging after him Finois, who seemed to be walking in his sleep. I felt it almost as a personal injury from the hand of Fate, that after my unavailing search for donkeys in a land where I had thought to be forced to beat them
They were charming little beasts, one mouse-colour, one dark-brown with large, grey-rimmed spectacles, and both animals were of the texture of uncut velvet. The former carried an excellent pack, which put mine to shame; the latter bore a boy's saddle, and the two were being fed with great bread crusts by a bewitching young woman of about twenty-six or -eight, wearing one of the toad-stool hats affected by the donkey-women of Mentone. She looked up at our approach, and having surveyed the pack and proportions of Finois with cold scorn, her interest in our procession incontestably focused upon Joseph. She tossed her head a little on one side, shot at the muleteer an arrow-gleam, half defiant, half coquettish, from a pair of big grey eyes fringed heavily with jet. She moistened full red lips, while a faint colour lit her cheeks, under the deep stain of tan and a tiger-lily powdering of freckles. Then, having seen the weary Joseph visibly rejuvenate in the brief sunshine of her glance, she turned away, and gave her whole attention to the donkeys.
"Hungry, Joseph?" I asked.
He had to bethink himself before he could answer. Then he replied that he had food in his pocket, bread and cheese, and that Finois carried his own dinner. They would be ready to go on, if I chose, or to remain, if that were my pleasure. "It is too early for a final stop, at a place where there can be no amusement for the evening," said I. "We had better go on. If you intend to stay outside with Finois, I'll send you a bottle of beer, and you can, if you will, drink my health."| | 102
With this I went in, feeling sure that the time of my absence would not pass heavily for Joseph.
This was the hour at which, in England, we would sip a cup of tea as an excuse for talk with a pretty woman in her drawing-room; but having tramped steadily for some hours in mountain air, I was in a mood to understand the tastes of that class who like an egg or a kipper for "a relish to their tea." I looked for the landlady with the illustrious ancestors, and could not find her; but voices on the floor above led me to the stairway. I mounted, passed a doorway, and found myself in a room which instinct told me had been the scene of the historic déjeuner .
It was a low-ceilinged room with wainscoted walls, and at first glance one received an impression of the past. There was a soft lustre of much-polished mahogany, and a glitter of old silver candelabra; I thought that I detected a faint fragrance of lavender lurking in the clean curtains, or perhaps it might have come from the square of ancient damask covering the table, on which a meal was spread.
That meal consisted of chicken; a salad of pale green lettuce and coraline tomatoes; a slim-necked bottle of white wine; a custard with a foaming crest of beaten egg and sugar; and a dish of purple figs. Food for the gods, and with only a boy to eat it--but a remarkable boy. I gazed, and did not know what to make of him. He also gazed at me, but his look lacked the curiosity with which I honoured him. It expressed frank and (in the circumstances) impudent disapproval. Having bestowed it, he non-chalantly continued his conversation with the plump and capped landlady, who was evidently enraptured | | 103 with him, while I was left to stand unnoticed on the threshold.
Purely from the point of view of the picturesque, there was some excuse for madame's preoccupation. The boy would have delighted an artist, no doubt, though our first interchange of glances gave me a strong desire to smack him.
His panama--a miniature copy of mine--hung over the back of his old-fashioned chair--the one, no doubt, in which Napoleon had sat to eat the déjeuner. Soft rings of dark, chestnut hair, richly bright as Japanese bronze, had been flattened across his forehead by the now discarded hat. This hair, worn too long for any self-respecting, twentieth-century boy, curled round his small head and behind the slim throat, which was like a stem for the flower of his strange little face. "Strange" was the first adjective which came into my mind; yet, if he had been a girl instead of a boy, he would have been beautiful. The delicately pencilled brows were exquisite, and out of the small brown face looked a pair of large, brilliant eyes of an extraordinary blue--the blue of the wild chicory. When the boy glanced up or down, there was great play of dark lashes, long, and amazingly thick. This would have been charming on a girl, but seemed somehow affected in a boy, though one could hardly have accused the little snipe of making his own eyelashes. He wore a very loose-trousered knicker-bocker suit of navy-blue; a white silk shirt or blouse, loose also, with a turned-down Byronic collar and a careless black bow underneath. He had extremely small hands, tanned brown, and on the least finger of one was a seal ring. My impression of this youthful tourist was that in age he might be any- | | 104 where between thirteen and seventeen, and I was sure that he would be the better for a good, thrashing.
"Some rich, silly mother's darling," I said to myself. "Little milksop, travelling with a muff of a tutor, I suppose. Why doesn't the ass teach him good manners?"
This lesson seemed particularly necessary, because the youth persisted in holding the attention of the landlady, who, with a comfortable back to me, laughed at some sally of the boy's. When I had stood for a moment or two, waiting for a pause which did not come, although the brat saw me and knew well what I wanted, I spoke coldly: "Pardon, madame, I desire something to eat," I said in French.
The landlady turned, surprised at the voice behind her.
"But certainly, Monsieur. Though I regret that you have come at an unfortunate time. We have not a great variety to offer you."
"Something of this sort will suit me very well," I replied, feeling hungrily that chicken, salad, custard, and figs were the things which of all others I would choose.
"It is most regrettable, Monsieur, but this young gentleman has our only chicken, unless you could wait for another to be killed, plucked, and made ready for the table."
I shuddered at the suggestion, and did not hide my repulsion. "I must put up with an omelette, then. I suppose I can have that?"
"At any other time Monsieur could have had two, if he pleased, but to-day all our eggs have gone into this custard. The young gentleman ordered | | 105 his repast by telegraph, and we did our best. As for the figs, he brought them himself; but if Monsieur would have a cutlet of the veau, or--"
"Give me a bottle of wine, and some bread and cheese. I do not like the veau," I said, with the testiness of a hungry man disappointed. As I spoke, my eyes were on the boy, who ate his breast of chicken daintily. Pretty as he was, I should have liked to kick him.
"Little brat," I apostrophised him once more, in my mind. "If he were not a pig, he would ask me to accept half his meal. Not that I would take it. I'd be shot first, so he'd be quite safe; but he might have the decency to offer."
Worse was to come, however. I had not yet plumbed the black depths of the Brat's selfishness.
"Certainly, Monsieur; we have very good cheese," madame assured me soothingly. "If Monsieur would be pleased to step downstairs."
"I should prefer to remain here," I replied. "This is the room, is it not, where Napoleon had his déjeuner?"
"The same, Monsieur, in every particular. But unfortunately, it is for the moment the private sitting-room of this young gentleman, who has made me an extra price to keep it for himself."
The poor old lady suffered manifest distress in breaking this news to me, and even in my evil mood I could not add intentionally to her pain. As for its cause, however, he sat absolutely unmoved. I think, indeed, from the blue light in his great eyes (which was absolutely impish), that the situation whetted his appetite. I did not deign another glance at the little wretch, as I went out, discomfited, but I felt that he was grinning at my back.| | 106
In a room below, I had a very creditable meal, which I should have enjoyed more, had my nerves not been jarred to viciousness. In the midst, I heard footsteps running downstairs, and presently outside the door of the salle-à-manger the boy's voice--sweet still with childish cadences, as a boy's is before the change to manhood first breaks, then deepens it.
"If he comes in here, I shall be inclined to throw a rind of cheese at his head," I thought; but he did not beard me in my den. The voice passed away, and presently I heard another, unmistakably that of a woman, giving vent to strange profanities in softest Provençal French. The speaker was apostrophising some person or animal, who was, according to her, the most insupportable of Heaven's creatures; and at last, with calls upon martyred saints, and cries of "Fanny-anny, Fanny-anny," there mingled a scuffling and trotting which soon died away in the distance, leaving stillness.
Soon after, having finished my meal, and paid my bill, I went out to Joseph. I found him alone with Finois. The donkeys and their fair guardian had gone.
"Well," said I, as we got upon our way, "I trust you had an agreeable spell of rest? The lady in the Riviera hat looked promising. If her conversation matched her appearance, you were in luck, and well repaid for taking your refreshment out of doors."
"Monsieur," began Joseph, "have you in English a way of expressing in one word what a man feels when he is both shocked and astonished?"
"Flabbergasted might do, at a pinch," I replied, after deliberation.| | 107
"Ah, the good word, 'flabbergasta'! It says much. It is that I am flabbergasta by the young woman of the ânes." I was taken, I admit it, Monsieur, by her face, as was but natural. And then I wished to find out, for the satisfaction of Monsieur and myself, how so strange a cavalcade came to arrive upon the St. Bernard Pass.
"I made myself polite. I spoke with praise of the ânes, and though my advances were coldly received at first, at the very moment I would in discouragement have ceased my efforts, the young woman changed her front, and seemed willing to talk. She would not answer my questions, except to say that she was of Mentone, and that she had escorted the young gentleman who now employs her on several excursions, a year ago, when he was on the Riviera. That he had sent for her and the two ânes to join him by rail, though the expense was great, and that they were travelling for the young gentleman's amusement, and his health, as he had had an illness which has left him still thin, and a little weak. From what place he had come, or to what place they were bound, she would not say. Her own name she told me, when I had asked twice over, but the young gentleman's name she would not give, nor would she even say the country of his birth. It was when I brought up this subject that the--the--"
"The flabbergasting began?"
"Precisely, Monsieur. She abused me for my curiosity, and, oh, Monsieur, the words she used! The profanities! And at the same time her face as mild as a pigeon's! She taunted me with being a Protestant, as if it were a black crime which bred others. Her name, if you would believe it, is Innocentina Pallumbo--Inocentina! But her tongue! | | 108 Monsieur, I listened as if I had been turned to stone. And it was at this time that the young gentleman, of whom she had told me, came out of the inn. He wished to walk, but Innocentina said that he was already too tired, and before he knew what was happening, she had him in the saddle on his âne. So they went off, and where they will pass the night, their saints alone know, for it is all but certain that they will never get such animals as those even as far as the Cantine de Proz."
"They were going in our direction, then?" I said. "We shall pass them on the way presently."
"I do not doubt it, Monsieur, though they had half an hour's start."
"Were the boy and the donkey-woman alone? No tutor with them?"
"Tutor, Monsieur? The poor young gentleman has a tutor and a duenna in Innocentina. I wish him joy of her."
"I wish her joy of him," said I, remembering my wrongs. But soon I forgot them and all other, troubles past and present, in surrendering my spirit, to the glory of the scene. Joseph had his triumph, for the surprise he had kept up his sleeve was out at last. St. Bernard had me at his feet, and held me there. The wild and gloomy splendour of the Pass struck at my heart, and fired my imagination. Even the Simplon had nothing like this to give. The Simplon at its finest sang a paæan to civilisation; it glorified the science of engineering, and told you that it was a triumph of modernity. But this strange, unkempt Pass, with its inadequate road,--now overhanging a sheer precipice, now dipping down steeply towards the wild bed of its sombre river,--this Great St. Bernard, seemed a secret way | | 109 back into other centuries, savage and remote. I felt shame that I had patronised it earlier, with condescending admiration of some prettinesses. No wonder that Joseph had smiled and held his peace, knowing what was to come. There was the old road, the Roman road, along which Napoleon had led his staggering thousands. There were his forts, scarcely yet crumbled into ruin. I saw the army, a straggling procession of haggard ghosts, following always, and falling as they followed, enacting again for me the passing scene of death and anguish. I was one of the men. I struggled on, because Napoleon needed all his soldiers. Then weakness crushed me, like a weight of iron. A mist before my eyes shut out the opposite precipice with its sparse pines, and flashing waterfalls, the mountain heights beyond, and the merciless blue sky. This was death. Who cared? The echo of thirty thousand feet was in my ears as they passed on, leaving me to die by the roadside, as I had left others before.
I started, and waked from my dream. It was a joyful shock to see Joseph beside me, in the homely clothes which had replaced his "Sunday best"; to see Finois and his pack full of my friendly belongings. But I clung to the comfortable present for a few moments only. The spell of dead centuries had me in its grip. Farther and farther back into the land of dead days, I journeyed with St. Bernard, and helped him found the monastery which the eyes of my flesh had not yet seen. The eyes of my spirit saw the place, the nerves of my spirit felt the chill of its remoteness. And even when I waked again, I could not be sure that I was Montagu Lane, an idle young man of the twentieth century, who had come for the gratification of a whim to | | 110 this fastness where greater men had ventured in peril and self-sacrifice.
Imagination is the one possession having which no man can be poor, or mean, or insignificant. He can walk with kings, and he can see the high places of the world with seeing eyes, a gift which no money can give; and yet he will have to suffer as those without imagination never can suffer or picture others suffering.
I told myself this, somewhat grandiloquently, and with self-gratulation, as I rubbed shoulders with certain of the world's heroes who had passed along this way; and there was physical relief after a strain, when the precipitous valley widened into billowy pastures lying green at the rugged feet of mountains.
Can any sound be more soothing than the tinkle of cow-bells in a mountain pass, as twilight falls softly, like the wings of a brooding bird? It is to the ear what a cool draught of spring water is to thirsty lips. There are verses of poetry in it, only to be reset and rearranged, like pearls fallen from their string; there is a perfume of primroses in it; there is the colour of early dawn, or of fading sunset, when a young moon is rising, curved and white as a baby's arm; there is also the same voice that speaks from the brook or the river running over rocks.
Suddenly we were in the midst of a great herd of cows, which blew out volumes of clover breath upon us, in mild surprise at our existence. They rubbed against us, or ambled away, lowing to each other, and I was surprised to find that, instead of each neck being provided with a bell, as I had fancied from the multitudinous tinklings, one cow only was thus ornamented.| | 111
"How was the selection made?" I asked Joseph. "Did they choose the most popular cow, a sort of stable-yard belle, voted by her companions a fit leader of her set; or was the choice guided by chance?" Joseph could not tell me, and I suppose that I shall never know.
The big, lumbering .forms crowded so closely round us in the twilight shadows, that now and then, to force a passage; Joseph was obliged to pull a slowly whisking tail, resembling almost exactly an old-fashioned bell-rope. Presently we had made our way past the herd, which was shut from our sight by the curtain of evening, though up on the mountain-tops it was still golden day.
"There," said Joseph, pointing, "is the Cantine de Proz."
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