- CHAPTER XVII The Little Game of Flirtation
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The Little Game of Flirtation
"To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you."—WALT WHITMAN.
THE Contessa had to be pacified, but she adored romance, and she was pleased to say that the story of the bag, lost and found, which I--not the Boy--told her, came under that category. She was in the best of tempers for a day of travelling, and saw us off, before her friends were dressed and ready to begin their drive to Chamounix.
"They are taking as long as they can, on purpose," she whispered to me, with the air of a naughty child planning mischief behind the backs of its elders. "Anything to keep me to themselves and away from you! But you are walking, and the way is uphill for a very long time, so the hotel people say. We shall catch you up, and just to spite the Di Nivolis, if nothing more, I shall beg, first one of you, then the other, to let me give you a lift. Neither of you must refuse, or I shall cry, and no man has ever made me cry yet."
"I'm sure no man ever will," I answered promptly.
"And no boy?" she asked, with a long-lashed glance at my companion, who had given no answer save a smile.
"I wonder how you would look when you cried, | | 205 Contessa?" was the only reply the little wretch deigned, but instead of offending, it appeared to amuse her. She watched our cavalcade out of the hotel garden (the rücksack once more on Souris faithless back), and the silver bells of her laughter lightly rang us down the road.
Again we had to pass through Martigny Bourg, and presently, turning aside from the road which had led me to the Grand St. Bernard, we took the way on the right, almost at once feeling the rise of the hill. Steeper and steeper it grew, and warmer and warmer we, though the day was young. Often we were glad of the excuse the view gave us to stop and look back, down into the wide bowl of the Rhone Valley, with a heat-haze of quivering blue, creating an effect of great distance, like a "gauze drop" on the stage.
Surely this was the longest hill on earth, and when we reached the top--if we ever did--we should find that we had been climbing Jack's Beanstalk, coming out into a different world! Up and up we dragged for hours, the Boy determined not to take to donkey-back, despite the protestations of Innocentina, emphatic, but slightly modified by constant association with the man she was engaged in converting.
Sometimes we were ministered to by small maidens, with marvellously neat, sleek hair, who sprang up under our eyes, apparently from rabbit-holes, their arms hooked into the handles of big fruit baskets which might easily have been their bath-tubs or cradles. If we seemed inclined to turn away with an expressionless gaze, the little creatures forged after us with a determined trot, laid back with tiny brown hands the dainty white napkin | | 206 hiding the basket's contents, and tempted us with purple plums or mellow pears. In the end, we invariably succumbed to these wiles, even when we had sickened at the thought of fruit, and were obliged surreptitiously to hide our purchases by wayside, when the sturdy young vendors' backs were turned.
We carried our panamas in our hands, and the Boy's short chestnut curls clung to his forehead in damp rings, making him look absurdly childish. I wondered at myself for discussing with eager interest, as I often did, so many of life's unanswerable questions with such a slip of boyhood. Still, I knew that I should often do it again, while we remained together, and that he would know how to measure wits with mine, to my disadvantage, compelling always my respect for his opinions, unless he happened to be in an inconsequential or impish mood.
After a long climb, we called a halt at the most attractive of several little wayside châlets we had passed. Each was thoughtfully provided with an awning or wooden roof stretching across the road to give shade to travellers, who were lured to pause by bottles of bright-coloured syrups, wine, and beer displayed on flower-decked tables. Our chosen châlet made a specialty of milk, and a view. There was a rough balcony at the back, built over a sheer precipice, and far beneath, the Rhone Valley spread itself for our eyes. We sat resting, with glasses of rich yellow milk in our hands, when a voice under the road-shelter in front roused us from reverie. It was the Contessa greeting Joseph and Innocentina, who were reposing on a bench in the delicious shade.| | 207
"I was just thinking it was rather queer they hadn't caught us up," I said, rising; and then I asked myself why I had said it; for, when I came to cross-question my own thoughts, they had to own up that the Contessa had not been in them.
"Oh, it was the Contessa you were thinking of, then, when you sat looking as if you were a thousand miles away, and had left your body behind to keep your place?" "said the Boy, jumping up quickly.
"Well, here she is; your mind may be at ease."
We returned to the front of the house, through the neat, bare "living-room," the Boy a step or two ahead of me, as if anxious to greet the new arrivals. Off came his hat, and he stood leaning against the carriage, looking up into the warm brown eyes of Gaetà, which were warmer and brighter than ever because of this sudden show of devotion.
Had the magnetism of her coquetry fired him? I wondered. It would be strange if it were not so, for she was beautiful, and her manner flattering to a boy so young. Somehow, my spirits were dashed at the thought that my companion's last words to me might be explained by jealousy of an older man with a pretty woman. It would be hard if it were to come to this between us. Though I had talked of going to see her in Monte Carlo, the butterfly Contessa was no more to me than a delicate pastel on someone else's wall, or a gay refrain, which charms the ear without haunting the memory. I would not interfere with the Boy; if he chose to encourage Gaetà to flirt with him, he need not fear me; but I had liked to think he valued my comradeship. Now, a fancy for this child-woman would rob me of him. Instead of being piqued by the Contessa's growing preference for the Boy, as | | 208 ought to have been by all the rules of the game of flirtation, I was conscious of anger against her as an intruder.
This feeling increased almost to sulkiness when the Boy was invited to take a seat in the carriage beside the gloomy Baron, and accepted promptly.
The driving party had been delayed a long time in starting, Gaetà explained, making large eyes which blamed her friends for everything; and the driver had brought his horses slowly, oh, so slowly, up the long hill, the stupid fellow. But now the carriage flashed ahead, and I was left to tramp on alone, while the Contessa and the Boy flirted, and Joseph and Innocentina bickered, all alike unmindful of me.
We lunched at the Col de Forclaz, where the hill, tired of going up, ran down to another valley. There was a godlike assemblage of mountains, white and blue, mountains as far as the eye could reach, and I had a thought or two which I would have liked to exchange for some of the Boy's. But if he had ever really had any thoughts, save for the fun of the moment, he had the air of forgetting them all for Gaetà. When, in a tone of unenthusiastic politeness, she asked if I would not take my friend's place in the carriage for a while when we started on again, out of pure spite against the little wretch who had dropped me for her I said that I would.
I could not see the Boy's face, to make sure if he were disappointed, but I hoped it. As for myself, I would fain have walked. In a scene of such exalted beauty, Gaetà's little quips and quirks struck a wrong note. Sitting with my back to the horses, I could see the Boy walking on behind, his face
The Baron and his wife disputed volubly about the date of one of Paolo's grand dinners in Paris; Gaetà yawned, and I was stricken with dumbness. I could think of nothing to say which she would think worth hearing. Soon, the tremendously steep descent into the valley gave me the best of excuses to jump down and relieve the horses, which the coachman was leading. Somehow, I don't quite know how, I fell back a good distance behind the carriage, and then I found myself so near the Boy, who had been slowly following, that it would have been rude not to join him. After all, we had no quarrel, yet oddly enough we could not take up the thread of our intercourse exactly where it had been broken off. There seemed to be a knot or a tangle in it, which would have to be smoothed out.
It was a wholly irrelevant incident which untied the knot, and left us as we had been, though there was no reason for it but a laugh which we had together.
The thing came about in this wise. We arrived at a small hotel which boasted a garden, and was famous as a view-point. From the door a carriage containing a man was about to drive away. The man was approaching middle age, and had an air of quiet self-reliance which redeemed him from insignificance. He was plainly dressed, in clothes which were not new, and altogether he did not appear to be a personage who, from the hotel-keeper's point of view, would be of supreme importance. Yet the landlord and another besieged the quiet man | | 210 with compliments and pleadings, to which he did not seem inclined to listen. Bowing gravely, he told his coachman to drive on, and in a moment had passed us as we stood in the road.
But when he had gone, the landlord and his assistant still had no eyes for us. "Mark my words," exclaimed the former, in a tone of anguish, "we shall lose our star."
Were they astrologers, that they should fear this fate?
Our curiosity was excited, and seeing a head-waiterly person, who wore a mien between awe and stifled amusement, I called for beer which I did not wish to drink. It was served on a table in the shady garden, and I enquired if the carriage just out of sight had contained a troublesome guest.
"Troublesome is not the word, Monsieur," replied the waiter. "But a thing has happened. That gentleman whom you saw, arrived a few days ago,giving the name of Karl. He took the cheapest room in the house; he drank one of the cheapest wines, having satisfied himself that the price was within his means. To-day, he said that he was leaving, and asked for his bill. When it was made out, the wine came to a franc more than he thought it ought. 'I do not complain,' said he to ourpatron; 'if that is the price of the wine, I will pay, but I was told at the table it was less. I do not consider the wine good enough for the price.' This vexed the patron, because one does not think the more of a person who haggles over a franc, especially if that person has studied cheapness in all ways during his visit. Perhaps the patron spoke somewhat irritably, for he did not care whether the monsieur ever came back to his house or not. Then | | 211 the monsieur paid the bill, without another word, and was going away, when a German gentleman, who had been sitting here in the garden, said to the patron: 'Do you know who that is?' 'No,' replied our patron, 'I do not know, nor do I care.' 'It is Baedeker,' said the gentleman. This was terrible; and the patron flew to correct the little mistake about the wine, with a thousand apologies; but the monsieur would not have his money back, and you saw him drive away. Now, it is possible that our hotel will no longer keep its star, and that would be no less than a catastrophe."
Evidently, what his cherished peacock-feather is to a Chinese mandarin, that is a Baedeker star to a hotel-keeper; and the Boy and I were so tickled at the little tragi-comedy that we forgot, as we walked on side by side, that we had been upon official terms only.
Again we were struck by the extraordinary individuality which differentiates one valley or mountain-pass from another. We had seen nothing like this; nothing, perhaps, so purely beautiful. One could not imagine that winter snow and ice could still the pulse of summer here. It was as if we wandered from one green glade to another in fairyland, where all the little, people who owned the magic land had turned themselves hurriedly into strangely delicate ferns and bluebells to watch us, laughing, as we went by.
The village of Trient lay in deep shadow when we reached it, and found the others waiting for us in the carriage in front of the chief hotel; but there was no gloom in the shadow; it was only a deeper shade of green, with a hint of transparent blue streaked across it. Another remote, dream-village | | 212 on the long list of places where I really must stay for a lazy summer month--when I have time! The list was growing long now, almost worryingly long, and the Boy felt it so, too, for he also had a list, and strange to say, it was much the same as mine.
We had tea, and were vaguely surprised to see a number of people of our own kind, most of them English and American, engaged in the same occupation, and evidently at home in the place. Trient was on their list as well as ours, and now, if they liked, they could cross it off, and begin with the next place.
The Contessa thought the Boy looked tired, and urged him to drive again, but though his manner was still flirtatious he found an excuse to keep to his feet. He was not really tired, not a bit; how could one be tired in so much beauty? The poor horses were fagged though, for the carriage was heavy; he would not add to its weight.
"You are getting rather white about the gills," I said to him when the driving party had once more left us behind. "Why didn't you take up your flirtation where you left it off, like a serial story to be 'continued in your next'? Your weight is nothing."
"It wasn't that, really," replied the Boy.
"Do you remember why I wanted to come over the Tête Noire?"
"To have the sensation of Mont Blanc suddenly bursting upon you."
"Well, I--to tell the truth, I had a whim--just a whim, and nothing more--to be with you and not with the Contessa when the time for that sensation should come."| | 213
My heart warmed; but perhaps I was flattering myself unduly. "You were afraid that her fascinations might overpower those of Mont Blanc, I suppose, whereas I am a mere stock or stone?"
"That's one way of putting it," replied he calmly.
But when the sensation did come, he caught my arm, with a quick-drawn breath, and no word following.
Our worship of other mountains had been a serving of false gods. There was the one White Truth, dwarfing all else into insignificance; not a mere mountain, but a world of snow sailing moon-like in full sky. It was, indeed, as if the moon, gleaming white and bathed in radiance, had come to pay Earth a visit. Surely it would not stay; surely it was a secret that she had come, and we had found it out, just when this great dark rock-door through which we looked, opened by accident to show the sight. But if it were a secret, there was no fear that we would ever tell it, for it soared beyond words.
The first glimpse gave this impression; afterwards we could not have recalled it if we had tried. We grew used to the white Majesty which faced us, by-and-bye, as alas! one does grow used to beauty while one has it within reach of the eye. But just as the Boy had begun to confess himself tired, and to lag in his walk, resting an arm on my shoulder, a new wonder came, like a draught of tonic wine. Sunset, with King Midas' touch, transformed the whole mountain to gold, so that it burned like a lamp to light the world, against a violet sky. In the foreground was a low rampart of green mountain, down which poured a huge glacier like an arrested cataract. It glimmered with a faint ra- | | 214 diance, greenish-blue, and pale as the gleam of a glow-worm" The violet of the sky deepened to amethyst-purple, and the snow on the waving line of mountains turned from gold to pink, as if there had been a sudden rain of rose leaves.
For a long time lasted the changing play of jewelled lights, and then the magic colour was swallowed at a gulp by the descending night.
Far away, and far down in the deep valley, the lights of Chamounix and its satellite villages sparkled like a troupe of fallen stars. They lay in a bright heap, clustered together; and Innocentina, coming up with us at this moment, said that they were like raisins sunk together at the bottom of a pudding. The late rain had set all the little torrents talking, and we were silent, listening to their gossip of the mountains' secrets.
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