- CHAPTER XI A Shadow of Night
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A Shadow of Night
"This villain. . . He dares--I know not half he dares-- But remove him--quick!"—ROBERT BROWNING.
So early was it still, I feared we had come before the brotherhood were astir to receive visitors; but as I looked up at the great, grey, silent building, the noble head of a magnificent St. Bernard dog appeared in the doorway, at the top of steep stone steps. There could not have been a more appropriate welcome to this remote dwelling of a devoted band; and when the dog, after gazing gravely at the newcomers, vanished into darkness, I knew that he had gone in to tell of our arrival. I was right, too, for once within, he uttered a deep bell-note, more sonorous and more musical than lies in the throats of common dogs, and was answered by a distant baying. One could not say that these majestic animals "barked." There was as indisputable a difference between an ordinary bark, and the sound they made, as between the barrel instrument played in the streets, and a grand cathedral organ.
Joseph had visited the Hospice many times, and knew the etiquette for strangers. He bade me go in, and ring the bell at the grille, unless I should meet one of the monks before reaching it. I mounted the | | 124 steps, entered the wide doorway which had framed the dog's head, and found myself in a vast, dusky corridor, resonant with strange echoings, and mysterious with flitting shadows, which might be ghosts of the past, or live beings of the present. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I saw that there were numerous persons in this great hall: tall monks in flowing robes of black, beggars come to solicit alms or breakfast; and dogs, many dogs, who crowded round me, with a waving of huge tails, and a gleaming of brown jewelled eyes in the dusk. I did not need to ring the bell of the iron gate beyond which, according to Joseph, no woman has ever passed. One of the monks came to me--a tall, spare young man with a grave face, soft in expression, yet hardened in outline by a rigorous life and exposure to extreme cold. He gave me welcome in French, with here and there an interpellation of "Down, Turk," " Be quiet, Jupiter!" Would I like breakfast, he asked; and then--yes, certainly--to see the chapel, the bibliothèque, the monastery museum, and the Alpine garden? There would be plenty of time for this, and still to reach Aosta. Another monk was called, and an introduction effected. I was taken into a handsomely decorated refectory, where I opened my eyes in some astonishment at sight of the Imp, drinking coffee from a shallow bowl nearly as big as his childish head. Innocentina was no doubt at this moment shocking Joseph by some new depravity, in the salle-à--manger where humbler folk were entertained with the same hospitality as their (so called) betters.
The Brat set down his bowl, and saw me, as I subsided into a chair on the opposite side of the long, narrow table, His face flushed, and the brilliant
"I didn't suppose you would have started yet," said I.
"I thought the same thing about you," he retorted. "We got off very quietly from the Cantine--"
"Ah, you wished to steal a march on me," I broke in. "But really, my young friend, you need not have feared that I should impose myself upon you as a travelling companion. My one object in making this excursion is, if not to enjoy my own society, at any rate to experiment with it, therefore--"
"I have two objects in making mine," the boy interrupted. "One is to avoid men; the other is to find materials for writing a book, with no men in it--only places."
"It will not be owing to me, if you fail in the former," said I. "As for the latter, naturally it will depend upon yourself. What shall you call it--' A Chiel takkin' Notes' or 'In Search of the Grail'?"
He blushed vividly. "I haven't decided on the name yet, but it can't matter to you, as I do not expect you to buy the book when it comes out; nor need you be afraid that you will figure in the pages. If I were to call my book 'In Search of--anything,' it would be, 'In Search of Peace.'"
With this, the strange child rose from the table, and bowing, departed, leaving me lost in wonder at him. He was but an infant, and an impertinent infant at that; yet suddenly I had had a glimpse, through the great sea-blue eyes, of a soul, weary after some tragic experience. At least this was the impression which flashed into my mind, with the one look I surprised before lashes hid its secret; but in a | | 126 moment I was laughing at myself. Ridiculous to have such a thought in connection with a slip of a boy, seventeen at most! I lingered over my breakfast, so that the Brat might have finished his sight-seeing and got away, before my tour of the Hospice began.
He and I had had the table to ourselves at first, but I sat so long that others came in, evidently persons who had spent the night at the monastery. There was a Russian family, of so many daughters that I wondered their parents had found names for them all; a couple of German women in plaid blouses so terrible that they set me speculating. Had the material been chosen by their husbands, with the view of alienating all masculine admiration, as a Japanese girl, when married, blackens her teeth? Or had the ladies inflicted the frightful things upon themselves, by way of penance for some grievous sin? I should have liked to ask, especially as one of the wearers was very pretty, with a large, madonna loveliness. But under my dreaming eyes, she began eating honey with her knife, and I sprang from the table hastily. As I paused, I heard two stolid Cockneys asking each other why the--dickens they had come to this "beastly, cold, God-forsaken hole, with nothing but a lot of ugly mountains to see.
There was better sport in Oxford Street." I should not have considered it murder if I had killed them where they sat, but I refrained, rather than soil my hands. And after all, if a primrose on a river's brim, but a yellow primrose was to them, what did it matter to me?
I visited the bibliothèque, which was haunted by a fragrance intoxicating to book-lovers, of dead centuries, leather bindings, and parchment. I saw the | | 127 piano given by the King when he was Prince of Wales; the fine collection of coins and early Roman remains found in the neighbourhood of the monastery; I dropped a louis into the box of offerings in the chapel, and then was taken by a mild-eyed, frail-looking monk to see some of the rooms allotted to guests at the Hospice. Seeing them, I was inclined to wish that I had pushed on through the darkness last night, and reached this mountain-top to sleep. I liked the wainscoted walls, the white, canopied beds, but most of all, I liked the deep-set windows with their view of the silent lake, asleep in the bosom of the mountains, and dreaming of the sky. On most of the walls were votive offerings in the shape of pictures, sent to the monks by grateful visitors in far-off countries. One was an engraving which had adorned the nursery in my youth, and had been a never-failing source of curiosity to me. It was Gustave Doré's "Christian Martyrs," and I had once been deprived of pudding at the nursery dinner, because I had remarked (with irreverence wholly unintentional) that one of the lions seemed ill, and anxious to "climb up the wall and get away from the nasty martyrs." Thus it is that children are misunderstood by their elders! and now, as I gazed at the same picture on the monastery wall, I felt again all the old, impotent rebellion against injustice and misplaced power.
Later, I wandered through the pathetically interesting Alpine garden, carefully kept by the monks; and then, sure that by this time the Brat and his cavalcade must be far on their way, I started, with Joseph and Finois, to stroll down the Pass towards Aosta.
I had promised Jack and Molly to tell them in my | | 128 letters, whether it would be possible for them, with a motor, to go by some of the routes which I chose. Over the St. Bernard from Martigny to the Hospice they could not have ventured, even in the stealthy, fly-by-night manner in which they had "done " the St. Gothard and the Simplon; for on the St. Bernard the road was always narrow, often stony and dangerous. Beyond, on the other side, even carriages cannot yet pass, descending to Aosta, though in another year the new road will be finished. As it is, for many a generation pilgrims from the Hospice to Italy have been obliged to go down as far as the mountain village of St. Rhémy either on foot or mule-back; thus there was no hope for Mercédés there.
I went swinging down the steep and winding path, my heart chanting a psalm to the mountains. Mountains like cathedrals, with carved, graceful spires; mountains like frozen waves left by some great sea when the world was chaos; mountains like leaning towers of Pisa; mountains like sentinel Titans; mountains silver-grey; mountains dark-red. The "Pain de Sucre" was strangest of all in form, perhaps, and Joseph distressed me much by remarking guilelessly that it, and other white shapes at which he pointed, looked exactly like frosted wedding-cakes. It was true; they did; but they looked like nobler things also, and I resented having so cheap a simile put into my head.
With every step the way grew more glorious. This was an enchanted land. I could hardly believe that thousands of travellers had seen it before, and would again. I felt as if I had fallen Sindbad-like, into a valley undiscovered by man; and, like Sindbad's valley, this sparkled to my dazzled eyes with | | 129 countless gems. Not all cold, white diamonds, like his, but gems of every colour. The rocks through which our path was cut, glowed with rainbow hues, like different precious metals blended. This effect struck me at first (in the brilliant sunshine which alone kept me from being nipped with cold) as puzzling, but in a moment I had solved the "jewel mystery" of the mountains. The rocks were of porphyry, and marble, and granite, spangled with mica; and over all spread in patches a lichen of rose, and green, and yellow, like chipped rubies and emeralds among gold-filings.
So wild and splendid was the scene, composed and painted by a peerless Master, that I slackened my pace, reluctant to leave so much splendour behind; but despite all delaying, we came after a time down to tree-level. The landscape changed; the diamond spray of miniature cataracts dashed over high cliffs, among balsamic pine forests; the sunshine brought out the intense green of moss and fern. We met porters struggling up the height with luggage on their backs, and fat women riding depressed mules. It was very mediæval, and I had the sensation of having walked into a picture--round the corner of it, into the best part which you know must be there, though it can't be seen by outsiders.
It took us an hour and a half to walk the eleven kilometres down to St. Rhémy, where we lunched well, and drank a sparkling wine of the country which may have been meretricious, but tasted good. There was a douane, for we had now passed out of Switzerland into Italy, and my mule-pack was examined with curiosity; but why I should have been questioned with insistence as to whether I were concealing sausages, I could not guess, unless a | | 130 swashbuckling German princeling who married into our family eight generations ago, was using my eyes for windows at the time.
I need not have feared that the best of the journey would be over at St. Rhémy, for the road (which broadened there, and became "navigable" for motor cars as well as horse-drawn vehicles), wound down still among stupendous mountains capped with snow, jagged peaks of dark granite, and purple porphyry which glowed crimson in contrast with the dazzling snow.
We did not leave St. Rhémy till long past one, and as we descended upon lower levels the sun grew hot. More than once I called a halt, and we had a delicious rest under a tree in some exquisite glade a little removed from the roadside. It was during one of these, while Finois cropped an indigestible branch, that Joseph opened his heart, and told me his life's history. It had been more or less adventurous, and it had held a tragedy, for Joseph had loved, and the fair had jilted him on the eve of their marriage, for a prosperous baker. This fellow-feeling (for had we not both been thrown over for tradesmen?) made me wondrous kind towards Joseph; and when I had drawn from him the fact that his great ambition was to own three donkeys, and start in business for himself. I secretly determined to see what could be done towards forwarding this end.
We did not hurry, and while we were still far above Aosta, the shadows lengthened and thinned, like children who have grown too fast. We exchanged chestnuts for pines, and the pure ethereal blue of Italy burned in the sky. Everywhere was rich abundance of colour. The green of trees and grass was luscious; even the shadows were of a trans- | | 131 lucent purple. Below us the valley of Aosta lay, so dreamily lovely, so peaceful, that one could imagine there only happiness and prosperity.
I remarked this to Joseph, and he smiled his melancholy smile. "It is beautiful," he said, "and when you are down at the bottom, you will not be disappointed in the country. But for happiness? It is no better than elsewhere. Wait till you see the crétins; there is a crétin in almost every family. And not long ago there was a dreadful murder in the neighbourhood of Aosta. The criminal has not yet been caught. He is supposed to be hiding somewhere in the mountains, and the police cannot find him. There is a printed notice out, warning people to beware of the murderer--so I read in a newspaper not long ago; and I have heard that the inhabitants of all these little hamlets we see here and there, dare not go from village to village after dark, for fear of being attacked."
"Then, if we should happen to be belated, we might have an adventure?" I said.
"Indeed, it is not at all unlikely, Monsieur. No doubt the man is desperate, and if he saw a chance to get a change of clothing, a mule, and some money, he might risk attacking even two travellers, from behind. But we shall arrive at Aosta before dark, and I am afraid--"
"I'll warrant you're not afraid of danger."
"That we shall get no such sport, Monsieur."
Even as he spoke there came, with the wind blowing up from the valley, a loud, long-drawn shriek of fear or distress, uttered by a woman. We looked at each other, Joseph and I, and then without a word set off running down the hill, in the direction of the cry. Again it came, "À moi--à moi!" We could | | 132 hear the words, now, and then a wild, inarticulate scream.
I bounded down the winding white road, where the evening shadows lay, and Joseph followed, somehow dragging Finois--at least, I am sure that he would not have left his beloved beast behind,--and so at last we turned a sharp bend of the path, thickly fringed with a dense wood, where suddenly Innocentina sprang almost into my arms. She ran to me, blindly, not seeing who it was, but knowing by instinct that help was at hand. "A robber--a murderer!" she panted. "Oh, save--" and then, I think, she fainted.
I have a vague recollection of tossing her to Joseph, and plunging into the dim wood, where something moved, half-hidden by the crowding trees. It was the donkeys I saw at first, and then I came full upon a man, dressed all in the brown of the tree trunks, so that at a distance he would not be seen among them, in the dusk. He had the rücksack I had noticed at the Cantine de Proz in one hand, and with the other he had just drawn a knife from the belt under his coat. On the ground crouched the Boy, shielding his bowed face with a slim, blue-serge arm.
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