- CHAPTER XIV The Path of the Moon
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The Path of the Moon
THIS was to be our last night at Aosta, perhaps our last night together, for the Boy's plans kept his name company in some secret "hidie hole" of his mind. As, for the third time, we dined on the loggia, before the rising of the moon, we drifted into talk of intimate things. It was I who began it. I harked back to the broken conversation which had first made us friends, and to his chance sketch of Helen Blantock and her type. In that connection, I ventured to bring up the subject of his sister.
"What you said about her disillusionment interested me very much," I told him. "You see, I've just come through an experience something like it myself. Do you mind talking about her?"
"Not in this place--and this mood--and to you," he answered. "But first--what disillusioned you?"
"Disappointment in someone I cared for,--and believed in."
"It was the same with--my sister."
"Yes, poor Princess. Was it--a man friend who disappointed you?"
"A woman. The old story. As a matter of fact, she threw me over because another fellow had a lot more money than I."| | 159
"Oh, just an ordinary, conventional, well brought up girl. Now you see I have as much right to a grudge against women, as your sister the Princess has against men."
"But I don't believe the girl could have been as cruel to you, as this man I'm thinking of was to--her. They'd known each other for years, since childhood. He used to call her his 'little sweetheart' when she was ten and he was fifteen. How was she to dream that even when he was a boy, he didn't really like her better than other little girls, that already he was making calculations about her money? She thought he was different from the others, that he cared for herself. They were engaged, the bridesmaids asked, the trousseau ready, the invitations out for the wedding, and then--one night she overheard a conversation between him and a cousin of his, who was to be one of her bridesmaids. Only a few words--but they told everything. It was the other girl he loved, and had always loved. But he was poor, and so--well, you can guess the rest. My sister broke off her engagement the next day, though the man went on his knees to her, and vowed he had been mad. Then she left home at once, and soon she was taken very ill."
"She loved that worthless scoundrel so much?"
"I don't know. I don't think she knows. It was the destruction of an ideal which was terrible. She had clung to it. She had said to herself: 'Many men may be false, and mercenary, and unscrupulous, but this one is true.' Suddenly, he had ceased to exist for her. She stood alone in the world--in the dark."
"Except for you."| | 160
"Except for me, and a few friends,--one girl especially, who was heavenly to her. But the dearest girl friend can't make up for the loss of trust in a lover."
"That's true. By Jove, I thought I had been roughly used, but it's nothing to this. I feel as if I knew your sister, somehow. I wonder, since you and she are such pals, that you can bear to leave her."
"She wanted to be alone. She said she didn't feel at home in life any more, and it made her restless to be with anyone who knew her trouble, anyone who pitied her. I was ill too,--from sympathy, I suppose, and--she thought a tramp like this would do me good. So it has. Being close to nature, especially among mountains, as I've been for weeks now, makes one's troubles and even one's sister's troubles seem small."
"You are young to feel that."
"My soul isn't as young as my body. Maybe that's why nature is so much to me. I am more alive when I'm away from big towns. Sunrises and sunsets are more important than the rising and falling of money markets. They--and the wind in the trees. What things they say to you! You can't explain; you can only feel. And when you have felt, when you have heard colour, and seen sounds, you are never quite the same, quite as sad, again,--I mean if you have been sad."
"I've said all that--precisely that--to myself lately," I exclaimed, forgetting that I was a man talking to a child. The strange little person whom I had apostrophised as "Brat" seemed not only an equal, but a superior. I found myself intensely interested in him, and all that concerned him.| | 161
"Odd, that you, too, should have thought that thing about colour and sound! This evening-blue, for instance. Do you hear the music of it?"
"Yes. I'm not sure it isn't that which has made me answer your questions. But now let's talk of something else--or better still, let's not talk at all, for a while."
We were silent, and I wondered if the Boy's thoughts ran with mine, or if he had closed and locked the secret door in his brain, and listened dreamily to the sweet evening voices of this Valley of Musical Bells.
Suddenly, into the many sounds of the silence, broke a loud and jarring note; the trampling of men's feet and horses' hoofs; loud laughter and the jingling of accoutrements. We looked over the balustrade to see a battalion of soldiers marching at ease, on their way back from some mountain manœuvres, and as we gazed down, they stared up, a young fellow shouting to the Boy that he had better join them.
"It's like life calling one back," said the strange child. "I suppose one must always go on, somewhere else. And we--we must go on, though it is sweet here."
"It was what I was thinking of just now," I answered. "Are we to part company?"
The Boy laughed--an odd little laugh. "Why, that depends," said he abruptly, "on where you are going. I've planned to walk back over the St. Bernard to Martigny, and so by way of the Tête Noire to Chamounix. That name--Chamounix--has always been to my ears, as Stevenson says, 'like the horns of elf-land, or crimson lake.' I want to come face to face with Mont Blanc, of which I've | | 162 only seen a far-off mirage, long ago when I was a little chap, at Geneva. What are your plans?"
"If I ever had any, I've forgotten them," said I. "Look here, Little Pal, shall we join forces as far as--as far as--"
"The turnstile," he finished my broken sentence.
"Where is the turnstile?"
"At the place--whatever it may be--where we get tired of each other. Isn't that what you meant?"
"According to my present views, that place might be at the other end of the world. You must remember it was never I who tried to get away from you. At the Cantine de Proz, I--"
"Don't let's remember to that time. Then, I didn't know that you were--You. That makes all the difference. You looked as if you might be nice, but I've learned not to trust first impressions, especially of men--grown-up men. There are such lots of people one drifts across, who are not real people at all, but just shells, with little rattling nuts of dull, imitation ideas inside, taken from newspapers, or borrowed from their friends. Fancy what it would be to see glorious places with such a companion! It would drive me mad. I determined not to make acquaintances on this trip; but you--why, I feel now as if it would be almost insulting you to call you 'an acquaintance.' We are--oh, I'll take your word! We're 'pals,' and Something big that's over all meant us to be pals. I don't mind telling you, Man, that I should miss you, if we parted now."
"We won't part," I said quickly. "We'll jog along together. Have a cigarette? I'm going to smoke a pipe, because I feel contented."
Between puffs of that pipe (an instrument which | | 163 I strongly but vainly recommended to the Boy) I told him of my night drive over the St. Gothard. As it was his whim to consider names of no importance, I did not mention that of Jack and Molly Winston, but spoke of them merely as "my friends."
"Could we do the St. Bernard at night?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes, we could, if we saved ourselves by driving up from here to St. Rhémy, after déjeuner, otherwise it would mean being on foot all day and all night too. We could send Joseph, Innocentina, and the animals on very early to-morrow morning, to the Hospice, where they might rest till evening. The good monks would give us a meal of some sort about six, and at seven we could leave the Hospice. There would be an interval of starry darkness, and then we should have the full moon."
"Splendid to see the Pass by moonlight, after knowing it by day, and sunset, and dawn! It would be like finding out wonderful new qualities in your friends, which you'd never guessed they had."
Thus the Boy; and a few moments later the details of our journey were arranged. Joseph and Innocentina were interrupted in the midst of ardent attempts to convert one another, to be told what was in store for them. They did not appear averse to the arrangement, for a slight pout of the young woman's hardly counted; there was no doubt that a journey à deux would offer infinite opportunities for religious disputation.
As for the Little Pal and me, we carried out the first part of our programme to the letter. Two barrel-shaped nags instead of one took us to St.Rhémy, the little mountain village whose men are | | 164 exempt from conscription, and called, poetically yet literally, "Soldiers of the Snow." Further up the jewelled way, our little victoria could not venture, and we trod the steep path side by side, the Boy stepping out bravely, the top of his panama on a level with my ear.
Some magnetic cord of communication between his brain and mine telegraphed back and forth, without personal intervention on either part, my keen enjoyment of the scene, and his. We did not talk much, but each knew what the other was feeling. Most people disappoint you by their lack of capacity to enjoy nature, in moments which are superlative to you--moments which alone would repay you for the whole trouble of living through blank years. But this boy's spirit responded to beauty, up to an extreme point which was highly satisfactory. I saw it in the exaltation on his little sunburned face.
Joseph and Innocentina were ostentatiously delighted to greet us at the Hospice. They and the animals had had their evening meal, and were ready to start when we wished. We went to the refectory and dined in company with many persons of many nationalities, who had just arrived from the Swiss and Italian valleys. Some of them manipulated their food strangely, as I had noticed here before; and Boy confided to me his opinion that it was a pity human beings were still obliged to eat with their mouths, like the lower animals. "It's a disgrace to one's face, which ought to be exclusively for better things. It's really too primitive, this penny-in-the-slot sort of arrangement. There ought to be a tiny trap-door in one's chest somewhere, so that one could just slip food in unobtrusively, at a meal, and | | 165 go on talking and laughing as if nothing had happened."
We were not long in dining, but by the time we came out again into the biting cold, late afternoon had changed to early evening.
It was sunset. The great mountain shapes of glittering, red gold were clear as the profiles of goddesses, against a sky of rose. One--the grandest goddess of all--wore on her proud head a crown of snow which sparkled with diamond coruscations, rainbow-tinted in the pink light. Below her golden forehead hovered a thin cloud-veil, of pale lilac; and we had gone a long way down the mountain before the ineffable colour burned to ashes-of-rose. Then darkness caught and engulfed us, in the Valley of Death. The rushing of the river in its ravine was like the voice of night, not a separate sound at all, for hearing it was to hear the silence.
By-and-bye we grew conscious of a faint, gradual revealing of the mountain-tops, which for a time had been black, jagged pieces cut out from the spangled fabric of a starry sky. A ripple of pearly light wavered over them, like the reflection of the unseen river mirrored for the Lady of Shalott.
It was a strange, living light, beating with a visible pulse, and it slowly grew until its white radiance had extinguished the individual lamps of the stars. Waterfalls flashed out of darkness, like white, laughing nymphs flinging off black masks and dominoes; silver goblets and diamond necklaces were flung into the river bed, and vanished forever with a mystic gleam.
"If there's a heaven, can there be anything in it better than this, Little Pal?" I asked.
"There can be God," he said, "I'm pagan | | 166 sometimes in the sun, but never on a night like this. Then one knows things one isn't sure, of at other times. Why, I suppose there isn't really a world at all! God is simply thinking of these things, and of us, so we and they seem to be. We are his thoughts; the mountains, and the river, and the wild-flowers are his thoughts. It's just as if an author writes a story. In the story, all the people and the things which concern them are real, but you close the volume and they simply don't exist. Only God doesn't close the volume, I think, until the next is ready."
"I wonder whether we'll both come into the next story?"
"Who knows? Perhaps you'll wander into one story, and I'll get lost in another."
A certain sadness fell upon me, born partly of our talk, partly of the poignant beauty of the night.
We came to the Cantine de Proz, fast asleep in its lonely valley, and so we went on and on, our souls tuned to music and poetry by the song of the stars and the beauty of the night: But slowly a change stole over us. For a long time I was only dimly conscious of it, in a puzzled way, in myself. Why was it that my spirit stood no longer on the heights? Why did the moonlight look cold and metallic? Why had the rushing sound of the river got on my nerves, like the monotonous crying of a fretful child? Why did our frequent silences no longer tingle with a meaning which there was no need to express in words? Why was my brain empty of impressions as a squeezed sponge of water? Why, in fact, though everything was outwardly the same, why was all in reality different?
"Oh, Man, I'm so hungry!" sighed Boy.| | 167
"By Jove, that's what's been the matter with me this last half-hour, and I didn't know it!" said I.
"I feel as if I could form a hollow square, all by myself."
"I only wish there were something to form it round."
"But there isn't--except a few chocolate creams I bought in Aosta because I respected their old age, poor things."
"Perhaps even decrepid chocolates are better than nothing. Let's give 'em honourable burial--unless you want them all to yourself, as you did the chicken at the 'Déjeûner,' and the room at the Cantine de Proz."
"Oh, you must have thought I was selfish! But truly, I don't think I am. It wasn't that. Only--I can't explain."
"You needn't," said I. "I was 'kidding'--a most appropriate treatment for a man of your size. What I want is food, not explanations."
The chocolates, which proved to be eighteen in number, were fairly divided, Boy refusing to accept more than his half. We each ate one with distaste, because the celebrated "Right Spot" was not to be pacified by unsuitable sacrifices; but presently it relented and demanded more. Appeased for the moment, the Spot allowed us to proceed, but incredibly soon it began again to clamour. We ate several more chocolates, though our gorge rose against them as a means of refreshment. Still Bourg St.Pierre, where we were sooner or later to sleep, was far away, and for the third time we were driven to chocolate. It was a loathsome business eating the remaining morsels of our supply, and we | | 168 felt that the very name of the food would in future be abhorrent to us. The night had become unfriendly, the Pass a Via Dolorosa, and the last drop was poured into our cup of misery at Bourg St.Pierre.
We had wired from the Hospice for rooms, and expected to find the little "Déjeûner" cheerfully lighted, the plump landlady amusingly surprised to see the guests who had lately brought dissension into her house returning peaceably together. But the roadside inn was asleep like a comfortable white goose with its head under its wing. Not a gleam in any window, save the bleak glint of moonlight on glass.
Joseph and Innocentina were behind us with their charges, whose stored crusts of bread they had probably shared. I knocked at the door. No responsive sound from within. I pounded with my walking stick. A thin imp of echo mocked us, and, my worst passions roused by this inhospitality falling on top of nine chocolate creams, I almost beat the door down.
Two sleepy eyelid-windows flew up, and a moment later a little servant who had served me the other afternoon, appeared at the door like a frightened rabbit at bay.
I demanded the wherefore of this reception; I demanded rooms and food and reparation. What, was I the monsieur who had telegraphed from the Hospice? But madame had answered that she had not a room in the house. The carriage of a large party of very high nobility had broken down late in the afternoon, and they were remaining for the night, until the damage could be repaired. What to do? But there was nothing, unless les messieurs | | 169 would sleep, one on the sofa, the other on the floor, in the room of the déjeûner."
"I suppose we'll have to put up with that accommodation, then. What do you say, Boy?" I asked.
"I would rather go on," he replied, in a tone of misery tempered by desperate resignation, as if he had been giving orders for his own funeral.
"Go on where?" I enquired grimly.
"I don't know. Anywhere."
"'Anywhere' means in this instance the open road."
"Well--I'm not so very cold, are you? And I'm sure they'll give us a little bread and cheese here."
"I think it would be wiser to stop," said I. "We might see the ghost of Napoleon eating the déjeuner. Isn't that an inducement?"
"I assure you that I don't snore or howl in my sleep. And you could have the sofa to curl up on."
"Ye-es; but I'd rather go on. You and Joseph can stop. Innocentina and I will be all right."
I was annoyed with the child. I felt that he fully deserved to be taken at his word, and deserted on the Pass, but I had not the heart to punish him. If anything should happen to the poor Babe in the Wood, I should never forgive myself; and besides, it would have been hopeless to seek sleep, with visions of disaster to this strange Little Pal of mine painting my brain red.
"Of course I won't do anything of the kind," I said crossly. "If one party goes on, both will go on." I then snappishly ordered food of some sort, any sort--except chocolate,--and having, after a blank interval, obtained enough bread, cheese, | | 170 and ham for at least ten persons, I divided the rations with Joseph and Innocentina, who had now come up.
We had a short halt for rest and refreshment, taken simultaneously, and presently set out again, with a vague idea of plodding on as far as Orsières The Boy refused so obstinately to ride his donkey (I believe because I must go on foot), that Innocentina, thwarted, did frightful execution among her favourite saints. Joseph reproved her; she retorted by calling him a black heretic, and vowing that she had a right to talk as she pleased to her own saints; it was not his affair. Thus it was that our chastened cavalcade left the "Déjeûner."
After this, our journey was punctuated by frequent pauses. The donkeys were tired; everybody was cross; the calm indifference of the glorious night was as irritating as must have been the "icily regular, splendidly null" perfection of Maud herself.
Only the Boy kept up any pretence of spirits, and I knew well that his counterfeited buoyancy was merely to distract attention from guilt. If it had not been for him, we should all have been tucked away in some corner or other of the "Déjeûner." No doubt he would have dropped, had he not feared an "I told you so."
We were still some miles on the wrong side of Orsières, when Innocentina came running up from behind, exclaiming that a dreadful thing, an appalling thing, had happened. No, no, not an accident to Joseph Marcoz. A trouble far worse than that. Nothing to the mulet ou les ânes. Ah, but how could she break the news? It was that in some way--some mad, magical way only to be accounted for by the intervention of evil spirits, probably attracted | | 171 by the heretic presence of Joseph--the rücksack containing the fitted bag had disappeared. If she were to be killed for it, she--Innocentina--could not tell how this great calamity had occurred.
I thought that after such an alarming preface, the Boy would laugh when the mountain had brought forth its mouse, but he did no such thing. His little face looked anxious and forlorn in the white moonlight. And all for a mere bag, which was an absurd article of luggage, at best, for an excursion such as his!
"I can't lose it," he said. "There are things in it which I wouldn't have anyone s--which I couldn't replace."
"Your sister the Princess will buy you another," I tried to console him.
"This is her bag. She would feel dreadfully if it were gone. Besides, my diary-notes for the book I want to write are in it. I would give a thousand dollars to get it again--or more. I shall have to go back."
"No, you won't," I said. "As to that, I shall put my foot down. If anyone goes--"
"Nobody shall go but myself. I won't have it.I--"
"And I won't have you go, if I'm forced to snatch you up and put you in my pocket. When I get you safely to Orsires, I don't mind a bit--" " No, no, you needn't say it. If we must go on to Orsières, I'll pay someone to come back from there, and search."
"Why shouldn't I be the one? I'm not tired, only rather cross, and for all you know, I may be in urgent need of the reward you mean to offer."
"You must be satisfied with your virtue. I've | | 172 my own reasons, and--and I suppose I'm my own master?"
"By Jove!" I exclaimed, laughing. "Eton would have done you a lot of good. You would have had some of your girly whims knocked out of you there, my kid."
"I wonder if that would have done me good?"
"It isn't too late to try. You haven't passed the age"
"I dare say travelling about with you will have much the same effect," said the Boy, suddenly become an imp again. "I think I'll just 'sample' that experiment first. But I do want my bag."
"Dash your bag! I'll lend you some night things out of the mule-pack. The lost treasure is sure to turn up again, like all bad pennies, to-morrow."
We reached Orsières and roused the people of the inn with comparative ease. They could give us accommodation, but the man of the house looked dubious when he heard that a runner must at once be found to search for a travelling bag, lost nobody knew where.
"To-morrow morning, when it is light--" he began; but Boy cut him short. "To-morrow morning may be too late. I will give five thousand francs to whoever finds my bag, and brings it back with everything in it undisturbed."
The man opened his eyes wide, and I formed my lips into a silent whistle. I thought the Boy exceedingly foolish to name such a reward, when the bag and its gold fittings could not have been worth more than a hundred pounds, and an offer of three hundred francs would have been ample. What could the strange little person have in his precious bag, which he valued as the immediate jewel of his soul? and
It must have been after three o'clock by the time I fell asleep in a queer little room where you had but to sit up in bed and stretch out your arm to reach anything you wanted. I dreamed of journeying through the night with the Boy, but I forgot his lost bag; nor when I waked in full morning light, did I recall its tragic disappearance. I found that it was nearly eight, and bounded out of bed, performing my toilet with maimed rites, since baths were not comme il faut at Orsières.
"The kid will be asleep still, I'll bet," I said to myself; but looking out of the window at that moment, I saw him in conversation with Joseph, Innocentina, and--apparently--half the inhabitants of the village.
I hurried down, and learned that the bag--still a lost bag--had set all Orsières on fire with excitement. The searchers had returned empty-handed, having gone back as far as the Cantine de Proz; and on the oath of Innocentina (more than one, alas!), the rücksack and its contents had been secure on the grey back of Souris when we passed the Cantine. Desolate as was the Great St. Bernard at night, late as had been the hour when the bag vanished, evidently someone had found and gone off with it. Nevertheless, many young persons of both sexes were eager to try their luck in a second quest.
The Boy, who had been up for hours, had it in mind to wait at Orsières until his treasure should be found, or hope abandoned; but I suggested going on at once to Martigny. There, we could have | | 174 handbills printed, offering a large reward, and these could be distributed over the country. The diligence drivers would help in the work, and we could also advertise in a local paper. To this proposal the Little Pal consented, and we started off again upon our way, a sadder if not a wiser party.
It was late afternoon when we straggled into Martigny. Now, our far away Alpine Rome with its crumbling towers and castles, our remote heights where a grey monastery was ever mirrored in the blue eye of the mountain lake, seemed like phases of a dream.
Friends of the Boy's (nameless to me, like all links with his outside life) had stopped lately at the hotel where Molly, Jack, and I had stayed; he therefore, proposed to go to the same house, and this jumped with my inclination: for the hotel had a cheerful and home-like individuality which I liked.
Pitying the Little Pal's distress, though I chaffed him for it, I undertook the business of getting out the handbills I had suggested, and arranging for an advertisement in a paper with a local circulation. I had to visit the post-office, engaging in a long discussion with the officials who controlled the diligence, and the business occupied more than an hour. In mercy to Boy, I had not delayed for any selfish attention to personal comfort, and tramping back through an inch of white dust to the hotel, I was still as travel-worn as on our arrival in the town, nearly two hours ago. I had forbidden the tired child to accompany me, and by this time he would no doubt be refreshed with a bath and a change of clothing, as, fortunately, not all his personal belongings had been contained in the ill-fated bag. He would be impatiently waiting for me at the hotel | | 175 door, perhaps; and I quickened my steps, in haste to give him details of my doings.
Entering the garden, I had to bound onto the grass, to escape being run over by a pair of horses prancing round the curve, at my back. I turned with a basilisk glare intended for the coachman, but instead met the astonished gaze of the very last eyes I could possibly have expected. My glare melted into a smile, but not one of my best, though the eyes which called it forth were alluringly beautiful.
"Contessa!" I exclaimed. "Is this you, or your astral body?"
"Lord Lane!" the lovely lady-of-the-eyes responded. "But no, it is not possible!"
Just as I was about to protest that it was not only possible, but certain, I caught sight of the Boy, in the doorway. As, at the Contessa's word, the carriage came to a sudden halt, she reaching out to me two little grey suède hands, the slim figure at the door drew back a step, as if involuntarily; but there was no getting round it, my Italian beauty had made Boy a present of my name, whether he wanted it or not.
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