- CHAPTER XVIII Rank Tyranny
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WE seemed to have formed a habit, the Boy and I, of steering always for a Hôtel Mont Blanc, if there were one in a town; so that now we had come to look upon a hostelry with such a name as a sort of second home, a daughter of a mother house. There were still two other reasons why we should select the Mont Blanc in Chamounix: the first, because the Contessa was going there and had asked us to do likewise; the second, because at Martigny we had seen an advertisement of the hotel which stated that it was situated in a "vaste parc avec chamois."
Our imagination pictured an ancient château, altered for modern uses, shut away from the outer world in a mysterious forest of dark pines, where wild chamois sported gracefully at will, leaping across chasms from one overhanging rock to another.
It was long past twilight when our little procession of four human beings and three beasts of burden straggled through a lighted gateway which we had been told to enter for the Hôtel Mont Blanc. With one blow our ancient castle was shattered. At a hundred metres distant from the street rose an enormous modern hotel, blazing with light at every window. Where was the vast park with its crowding pines | | 216 and its ravines for the wild chamois? It must be somewhere, since the advertisement certified its existence, and so must the chamois. Perhaps the forest lay behind the hotel; but the Boy was too tired to care, and to us both baths, food, and rest were for the moment worth more than parks or chamois. The hotel struck a high note of civilisation, and I had seen nothing so fine since London or Paris. The Boy and I dined late and sumptuously, tête-à-tête, for the hot sun and the long drive had sent Gaetà to bed, chastened with a headache; and, weary as he was, the Little Pal had pluck enough left to suggest an appointment for early next morning. "I shall want to know how Mont Blanc looks from my window, so I won't waste my time in bed," said he. "Besides, I'm rather keen to see the chamois, aren't you? The only one I've ever met was stuffed, and rather moth-eaten. He was in a dime museum in New York."
I was up at half-past six next day, and at my window, where Mont Blanc in early sunshine smote me in the face with its nearness. A sudden longing took me, as the longing for a great white lamp takes a moth, to fly at it, or, in other words, to get myself to the top. I had never "done" any Swiss ascents, though I knew almost every peak and pinnacle of rock in Cumberland and Wales, and it seemed to me that I should be a muff to miss the chance of such a climb as this. By the time I had dressed, the thing was decided. I would see about guides, and try to arrange at once for the ascent.
The thought had joy in it, and I ran downstairs, whistling the "Alpine Maid." The Boy and I had settled overnight that we would drink our morning coffee and eat our rolls together, at a quarter to eight, long before the Contessa or her friends had opened | | 217 their eyes; but the appointed time was not yet come, and I had it in mind to make enquiries concerning my excursion, when I almost stumbled against the Boy, coming in at the front door.
"I've been out in the park," said he, when we had exchanged by way of greeting a "Hello, Boy" and "Hello, Man."
"Meet any chamois?"
"Honour bright? An inspection of the park from my window led me to fear that they must be an engaging myth. There's a fine big garden, with a lot of trees in it, but as for rocks or chamois--"
"There are both. Come out and I'll show you."
I went, walking beside the Boy along one well-kept path after another, until suddenly the bubble delusion broke. In a cage stood or sat, in various attitudes of bored dejection, five melancholy little animals with horns, and singularly large, prominent eyes. Their aspect begged pardon for their degradation, as they turned their backs with weak scorn upon a toy rock in the centre of their prison. "We have reason to believe that we are well connected," they seemed to bleat, "because there is an ancient legend in our household that we are chamois, but you must not judge the family by us."
"I believe," said the Boy pitifully, "they've degenerated so far now, that, if one gave them Mont Blanc to bound upon, they wouldn't know what to do with it."
"I would, however," said I, full of my project, "and I'm thinking of trying."
"What do you mean?" asked the Boy, looking rather startled.| | 218
"Let's have breakfast out of doors on a little table under the trees, and I'll tell you. Here's one in the shade, and away from the--er--a certain chamoisness in the air." I pulled up chairs, and raised my hand to a hovering waiter. "What I mean to say is," I went on, "that I'm going to make the ascent as soon as I can arrange it. You won't mind waiting for me a couple of days, will you?--or, of course, you can travel with the Contessa if you like. No doubt she would be delighted to have you."
"You're going up--Mont Blanc?"
"I am, my Kid."
"Because--you might be killed."
"Good heavens, one would think I was Icarus, gluing a pair of wax wings on to my shoulder-blades for a flight into ether. I'm not exactly a novice at the game, you know, though I haven't done any show-climbing. Why, you little donkey, you look pale. What's the matter with you?"
"Do you know what happened this morning--or rather last night?" the Boy replied to my question with another. "Did any of the hotel people tell you?"
"No. Don't be mysterious before breakfast. It isn't good for the digestion."
"Don't joke. I wasn't going to say anything about it till afterwards, in case you hadn't heard; but now I Will. The femme de chambretold me. The news has just come that a young guide has died of exhaustion on the mountain, between the Observatory and the Grands Mulets. Two others who were with him had to leave him lying dead, after dragging the body down a long way."| | 219
At this inappropriate moment, our coffee, rolls, and honey were set before us, and the waiter, being an accomplished linguist, like most of his singularly gifted and enterprising kind, had heard and understood the last sentence. Bursting with gruesome information, he could not resist lightening himself of the burden, for our benefit and his own. "You can see the dead man lying on the snow, far up on the mountain," said he eagerly, "if you go into the town and look through one of the telescopes. I have seen him already; he is like a small, dark packet on the white ground, wrapped in his coat."
My appetite for breakfast suddenly dwindled, but not so my appetite for the climb. I was very sorry that a man had died on the mountain, but I could not bring him to life again by remaining on low levels, and so I remarked when the Boy asked me if I were still in the same mind concerning the ascent. "I shall see about a guide directly after breakfast," said I, "and when you hear a cannon fired in the town announcing the arrival of a party at the top of Mont Blanc, you will know it is an echo of my shout of Excelsior!"
"No, I won't know it," returned the Boy obstinately. "For one thing, the cannon might be fired for someone else, and besides, I won't be here."
"Oh, you'll go on with the Contessa? But I shouldn't be surprised if she were good-natured enough to wait at Chamounix to congratulate me when I come down."
"No doubt she thinks enough of you to do that. But what I mean is this: if you go up Mont Blanc, I'm going too."
"Nonsense! You'll do nothing of the kind. You | | 220 are a very plucky chap, but you're not a Hercules yet, whatever you may develop into ten years from now. No minors are permitted to ascend Mont Blanc."
"That's nonsense, if you like! I shall go if you do."
"I won't take you."
"I don't ask you to. I shan't start until after you've gone, so, you see, you'll have no power to prevent me."
"You are simply talking rot, my dear boy. Good heavens, you'd die of mountain sickness or exhaustion before you were half-way up."
"Perhaps. I know very little about my ability as a climber, for I've never made any big ascents, though I've scrambled about in the mountains a little at home."
"It would be madness for you to attempt such a thing. Why, don't you know it taxes the endurance of a strong man? You've only lately recovered from an illness; you told me so yourself. I shan't allow you to--"
"You're not my keeper, you know."
"But we are friends, pals. I ask you, as a great favour, to be sensible, and--"
"I asked you as a great favour not to go up Mont Blanc. Things happen. I have a feeling that something might happen to you. I should be--wretched while you were gone. I couldn't sit still under the suspense, feeling as I do. So I would follow your example."
"There'd be no danger for me. There might be death for you."
"Well, then, you can save my life if you like, by not going. If you don't go, I won't."| | 221
"Of all the brutal tyrants who have tyrannised over mankind--"
"I heard you say once that you would like to have been a professional tyrant. Why shouldn't I qualify for the part?"
"You are cruel to put me in such a position."
"You are cruel to make me do it, for your own selfish amusement."
"By Jove! You talk like an exacting woman!"
The blood rushed to his face so hotly that it forced water into the brilliant eyes of wild-chicory blue.
"If I were a woman I don't think I would be an exacting one. I should only want people I--liked, to do things because they cared about me, otherwise favours would be of no value. We're pals, as you say, great pals, but if you don't care enough--"
"Oh, hang it all, Kid, I'll give the thing up," I broke in, crossly. "I'll potter about with you and the Contessa in Chamounix, and take some nice, pretty, proper walks. But all the same, you're a little brute."
"Do you hate me?"
"Not precisely. But if I stop down here, Satan will certainly find mischief for my idle hands to do. I shall try to take your Contessa away from you, perhaps."
"Oh, will you? Then I shall try to keep her; and we shall see which is the better man."
He rose from the table with a little swagger, ruffling it gaily in his triumph over me; and so young, so small he seemed, to be boasting of his manhood and his prowess in the warfare of love, that I burst out laughing.
"Come on," I said, "let's go and have a look | | 222 round Chamounix, since there's no better sport to be had."
So we strolled out of the vaste parc avec charmois into the streets of the gay and charming little town, lying like a bright crystal at the foot of Mont Blanc. Round each of several big telescopes under striped canvas umbrellas, was collected a crowd. We could guess at what they were looking. "Shall we stop and see that piteous dark packet lying lonely on the snow?" I asked, pausing. But the Boy hurried on. "No, no," he said, "I should feel as if I had I been spying on the dead through a keyhole. I want to buy something at the shops."
"And I want to see the statue of Horace de Saussure, the first man who ever got to the top of Mont Blanc," said I, with reproachful meaning in my tone.
The shops were almost as attractive as those of Lucerne, and gave an air of modernity and civilisation to the little place, which would have been out of the picture, had it not contrived to suggest the piquancy of contrast. The Boy spent a hundred francs for a silver chamois poised upon the apex of a perilous peak of uncut amethysts, mounted on ebony, and I was witty at the expense of his purchase, likening it to the white elephant of Instantaneous Breakfasts et Cie., which I had long ago cast behind me.
"You will be throwing your chamois away in a day or two," I prophesied, "or sending it back to our landlord to add to his collection of animals."
"You will see that I shan't throw it away," the Boy returned, and insisted upon carrying the parcel in his hand, instead of having it sent from the shop to the hotel. When we had learned something off the town we sauntered homeward; and seated in the | | 223 vaste parc with a novel and a red silk parasol, we found Gaetà. "Where have you been so early?" she asked.
"To find a burnt-offering for your shrine," said the Boy; and tearing off the white wrappings, he gave her the silver chamois.
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