- CHAPTER XXIV The Revenge of the Mountain
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The Revenge of the Mountain
IT is the early bird which gathers the worm, if the worm has thoughtlessly got up early too; but it is also the bird which comes flying from afar off, whatever his engagements elsewhere may be; the bird which, having come, remains on the spot favoured by the worm, singing sweet songs to charm it into a mood ripe for the gathering.
Such a bird was Paolo, and such--but perhaps it would be more gallant not to carry the simile further, since even poetry could scarcely license it.
It is enough to say, in proof of the proverb, that when the Boy and I arrived at the villa in time for déjeuner, to which I had been invited over night, we found Paolo with Gaetà, under the red umbrella, unencumbered by any irrelevant Barons or Baronesses.
Gaetà was looking pale and a little frightened. Her dimples were in abeyance, as if waiting to learn whether something had happened to twinkle about, or something which would more likely extinguish them forever. But the aëronaut might have invented an air-ship to take the place of ordinary Channel traffic, so great with pride was he. He appeared to have grown several inches in height, and | | 273 to have increased considerably in chest measurement, as he sprang from his chair to welcome us, as if we had been long-lost brothers.
"Congratulate me," said he. "The Contessa has just consented to be my wife."
Gaetà clutched the arm of her rustic seat with a tiny hand upon which a new ring glittered, like a new star in the firmament. Her warm dark eyes, eager, expectant, deliciously fearful, were on the Boy. If the discarded favourite of yesterday had leaped to the throat of the accepted lover of to-day (her "Whirlwind "), she would have screamed a silvery little scream and implored him for her sake to accept the inevitable calmly; she would have given him a reproachful flash of the eyes, to say, "Why didn't you take me, instead of letting him carry me away? What could I do, when you left me alone, at his mercy--I so frail, he so big and strong?" Her glance would then have telegraphed to Paolo, "You have won me and my love; you can afford to spare a defeated rival who is desperate"; and perhaps she might even have thrown me a crumb for auld flirtation's sake.
But the Boy did not, apparently, feel the least magnetic attraction towards Paolo's throat, or any other vulnerable part of the aëronaut's person. Nor did he stamp on the ground, crying upon earth to open and swallow the master of the air. I, too, kept an unmoved front; but then, being English, that might have been pardoned to my national sang-froid. There was, however, no such excuse for the mercurial young American, and flat disappointment struck out the spark in Gaetà's eye. The second act of her little drama seemed doomed to failure.
"Mille congratulations," said the Boy cordially, | | 274 I basely echoing him. We shook hands with Gaetà we shook hands with Paolo, and something was said about weddings and wedding-cake. Then the Baron and Baronessa appeared so opportunely as to give rise to the base suspicion that they had been eaves-dropping. More polite things were mumbled, and we went to luncheon, Gaetà on Paolo's arm, with a disappointed droop of her pretty shoulders. We drank to the health and happiness of the newly affianced pair, a habit which seemed to be growing upon me of late, and might lead me down the fatal grade of bachelordom. The Boy and I were unable to conceal, as we ought to have done out of politeness, the fact that our appetites had sustained the shock of our lady's engagement, and I saw in her eyes that she could never wholly forgive us, no, not even if we made love to her after marriage.
"Shall you take your wedding trip in a balloon?" asked the Boy demurely; and this was the last straw. Gaetà did not make the faintest protest when, soon after, it was announced that he and I thought of leaving Aix on the morrow. I am not sure that she even heard my vague apologies concerning a telegram from friends.
We all went to the opera at one of the Casinos that night. It was "Rigoletto," and Gaetà and Paolo sat side by side, looking into each other's eyes during the love scene in the first act. But the Boy was adamant, and I did not turn a hair. He and I were much occupied in wondering at the strange infatuation of the stage hero, but especially the villain--quite a superior villain--for the heroine, who looked like an elderly papoose: therefore we had no time to be jealous of anything that went on under our noses. | | 275 The party supped with me, en masse, at my hotel; and afterwards I said good-bye to Gaetà.
She did not know that I had planned my journey with a thought of seeing her at the end, and drowning my sorrows in flirtation; but the Boy knew, and had not forgotten--the little wretch. I saw his thought twinkling in his eyes, as I said debonairly that we might all meet on the Riviera. If I had not sternly removed my gaze, I should probably have burst out laughing, and precipitated a second duel in which I, and not the Boy, would have been a principal.
When I had been in Aix-les-Bains before, I had made the excursion to Mont Revard, as all the world makes it, by the funicular railway; and after half an hour in the little train, I had arrived at the top for lunch and the view, both being enjoyed in a conventional manner. Now, all was to be changed. The Boy and I did not regard ourselves as tourists, but as pilgrims.
Among other things that self-respecting pilgrims cannot do, is to ascend a mountain by means of a funicular railway; better stay at the bottom, and look up with reverence. Therefore, instead of strolling out to the little station about twelve o'clock, with the view of reaching the restaurant on the plateau in time for déjeuner, we met on the balcony of the Bristol at seven in the morning. There we fortified ourselves for a long walk, with eggs and café au lait, while Innocentina and Joseph grouped the animals at the foot of the steps.
The day was divinely young, and most divinely fair, when we set forth. Only the soft fall of an occasional leaf, weary of keeping up appearances on no visible means of support, told that autumn had | | 276 come. The weather put me in mind of a beautiful, woman of forty, who can still cheat the world into believing that she is in the full summer of her prime, and is making the most of the few good years left before the crash.
As we struck up the steep hill that leads out of Aix-les-Bains and civilisation, passing with all our little procession into the oak copses which fringe the lower slopes of Mont Revard, the Boy and I agreed that nothing became the town so well as the leaving it behind. At last little Aix unveiled her face to us, as we looked down upon it from airy altitudes. We had space to see how pretty she was, how charmingly she was dressed, and how gracefully she sat in her mountain-backed chair, with her dainty white feet in the lake, which, as Joseph said, we could now follow with our eyes dans toute son é- tendue. A beautiful étendue it was, the water keeping its extraordinary brilliance of colour, even in the far distance; vivid in changing blue-greens, flecked with gold, like the spread tail of a peacock burnished by the sun.
Mont Revard is chiselled on the same pattern as all the other mountains, big and little, of this part of Savoie; first, the long, steep slope decently covered with a belt of wood, oak below, and pine above; then a grey, precipitous wall, scarred and furrowed by the frost and storm of a million years or more. This block-and-socket arrangement of Nature is, generally speaking, one of the least interesting of mountain forms, and its crudity was the more noticeable as we were fresh from the soaring pinnacles and stupendous pyramids of Switzerland. But Mont Revard is the perfection of its type; and as we plodded in single file up the threadlike path | | 277 wound round the mountain (Joseph and Innocentina in front, driving the animals), my respect for Revard increased with each steeply ascending step.
Aromatic-scented branches brushed our faces, and we had to part them before we could pass on. Then they flew back into their accustomed places, resenting our intrusion by shaking over us a shower of fragrant dew. The path, which was always narrow, had fallen away a little here and there, for it is no one's business to repair it now, since the making of the railway has turned pilgrims into tourists. There was just room for man or beast to walk without danger, but so sheer were the descents below us, so great the drop, that a woman might have been pardoned a few tremors. "It's a good thing you're not a girl," said I to the Little Pal, across my shoulder, holding back a particularly obstinate branch which would have liked to push us over the precipice, with its lean black arm. "You would be screaming, and I shouldn't know what to do for you."
"Not if I were an American girl," he replied, bristling with patriotism.
"Is your sister plucky?"
"As plucky as I am; but perhaps that's not saying much. So you're glad I'm not a girl?"
"I wouldn't metamorphose you, and lose my comrade. Still, if your sister were like you, and not an heiress, I should--"
"Like to meet her. But she would probably detest me, and wonder how her brother could have endured my society for weeks on end."
I was looking back, as I spoke, at the Boy, who was close behind, when suddenly his smile seemed | | 278 to freeze, and springing forward he caught me by the coat sleeve.
"What's the matter?" I asked, for he was pale under the brown tan.
For an instant he did not answer. Then, with his lips trembling slightly, he smiled again. "I thought you were going to be killed, that's all," said he, "so I stopped you. You were looking back at me, but I saw that--that you were just going to tread on a stone which Fanny had loosened with her hoof as she passed. If you had stepped there, before you could regain your balance, you--but there's no use talking of it. Only do look where you're walking, won't you, when we're on a path like this? Now we can go on."
"Why, you little duffer, you're as white as a ghost!" I exclaimed. "If the stone had slipped I should have jumped back. The path isn't really so narrow. It only gives that effect because it's steep, and hangs over the edge of a precipice. Still, many thanks for your solicitude."
"I believe, after all, I'll have to rest for a minute," the Boy said apologetically. "I feel--a little queer. You needn't wait. I'm sorry you should see me like this. You'll think that there's nothing to choose between me and a girl. But I'm not always a coward."
"I know that well enough," I assured him. "You're not a coward now. But come on. You shall rest when the path widens, where the others are stopping."
I caught his hand to pull him along, since we could not walk abreast, and it was icy cold. Yet it was not for himself that he had feared, and my heart was very warm for the Little Pal, as I steered | | 279 him carefully past the loose, flat stone on the edge of the narrow path.
Joseph and Innocentina, who had been driving Finois and Souris, allowing Fanny to follow at will, had called a halt with the three animals, in a green dell where the way widened. The muleteer had a handful of exquisite pink cyclamen, fragrant as violets, which he had been gathering from hidden nooks among the rocks, and he was in the act of presenting the flowers to Innocentina when we arrived, but she waved them aside, exclaiming at her young master's pale face.
The Boy explained that there might have been an accident, owing to Fanny, and the donkey girl broke into violent abuse of the brown velvet creature who was her favourite.
"Daughter of a thrice-accursed mother, and of a despicable race!" she cried in her odd patois, which it was often better not to understand too well. "Blighted and bloodthirsty beast! But look at her now, eating with an enormous appetite a branch as big as herself. Anaconda! She would eat if the world burned. If she had, with a stroke of her twenty times condemned hoof, hurled us all to death on the rocks below, she would still eat, not even looking over the cliff to see what had become of us."
"But you should not talk so," broke in Joseph, lover of animals. "It was not the fault of the little âne that the stone was loosened. How could she know? It is you who are hard of heart, to turn upon her thus. It is because you are Catholic, and believe that the beasts have no souls."
"It is better to have none than to be a heretic, and the soul burn," retorted Innocentina. "I am not hard-hearted. I love my young Monsieur, and | | 280 would not see him injured, that is all; while you care for nothing in the world so much as your old Finois. Ah, I would I had the insouciance of the ânes. It is after all that which keeps them young."
At this we laughed, which annoyed Innocentina so much that she at once fed to the maligned Fanny a bunch of charming yellow-pink mushrooms which my prophetic soul told me had been originally intended for her master's lunch.
Fortunately for us, Joseph--sadly wearing in his buttonhole the despised cyclamen--discovered a few more of these agreeable little vegetables, which he tested for our benefit by drawing his sturdy thumbnail along the stem, showing how the fluted under-surface flushed red at the touch, while the blood flowed carmine from the wound he made.
A short rest brought the colour back to the Boy's lips, but we did not go on again until we had eaten some of the chicken sandwiches which had been put up for me at the hotel. Climbing had made us hungry, although we had not been three hours on the way. And we had left the summer behind, on lower levels; we did not need to remind ourselves, now that it was autumn. By noon we were en route again, but the brilliance of the day had gone. As we looked back at the world we were leaving, serrated mountains were dark against flying silver clouds, and when we neared the Col, a fierce north wind, which had been lying in wait for us above, swooped down like a great bird of prey. We had heard it shrieking from afar, but now we had penetrated into its very eyrie; and as we crept, like flies upon a wall, along the tiny path which merely roughened the sheer rock precipice, the wind caught and clawed us with savage glee.| | 281
For a wonder, the much-travelled Joseph had never before made the ascent of Mont Revard, therefore a certain pioneer instinct on which I pride myself, and yesterday's research in the admirable map of the Ministry of the Interior, alone gave us guidance. I did not see how we could have come wrong, yet each moment it appeared that our neglected path had reached its end, like an unwound tape-measure. Could it be possible that this broken, ill-mended thread was the clue which would eventually lead us to the Col de Pertuiset, and the châlet-hotel far away upon the summit of the mountain?
The Boy and I were ahead now, I sheltering him slightly from the cold blast with my body, as I walked before him. Presently the way turned abruptly, to zig-zag up a gap in the rock face, and I shouted a warning to Joseph to look after Innocentina and the animals, so steep and ruinous was the path. But I need not have been alarmed. A backward glance showed me that Joseph had anticipated my instructions, so far as Innocentina was concerned.
Not a word of complaint came from the Boy; indeed, it would have been difficult for him to utter it, even if he would, with the wind rudely pressing its seal upon his lips. But I held out a hand to him, and though he rebelled at first, an instant's silent tussle made me master of his, so that I could pull him up with little effort on his part.
In the deep gullies and hollows of this chasm below the Col, the wind had us at its mercy, and forced our breath down our throats. We were in deep shadow, though the sun should have been not far past the zenith, and looking up to learn the reason, we saw that a huge bank of woolly mist hung | | 282 grey and heavy between us and the sky. Below--far, far below--we had a glimpse of the world we had left still bathed in September sunshine, warm and beautiful, with cloud-shadows flying over low, grass mountains and distant lakes. Then we seemed to knock our heads against a dull grey ceiling, which noiselessly crumbled round us, and we were in the mist.
No longer was it a ceiling, but a sea in which we swam; a sea so cold that a shiver crept through our, bones into our marrow. We had escaped the clutches of the wind, to drown in fog, and in five minutes I had beside me a small, ghostly form with frosted hair, and a white rime on his jacket. The Boy was like a figure on a great iced cake, for the ground was whitened too.
Luckily, the ascent was over, and we were on grassy, undulating land where stunted trees stood here and there like pointing wraiths in the misty gloom. Dimly I could see, now and then, a daub of paint, red as a splash of blood, on a dark boulder, to guide travellers towards the summit hotel. Had it not been for these, it would have been impossible to find the way, or keep it if found.
We could walk side by side here, and looking down at the Boy, I could see that he was shivering.
"Can it be that a few hours ago the mere exertion of walking made us so hot that we had to mop our foreheads, and fan ourselves with our hats?" I asked.
"Let's talk about it," said the Boy. "It may warm us, just to remember."
"Are you very cold?"
"Not so ve-r-y."| | 283
"Your teeth are chattering in your head. Stop, we'll have our overcoats out of the packs."
"I don't want mine."
"Nonsense; you must have it."
"To tell the truth, I haven't got it with me. I gave it to the upstairs waiter at Chamounix. He told me a lot about himself, and he was in trouble, poor fellow; he'd been discharged for some fault or other, and was so poor that he was going to walk home, in the farthest part of Switzerland. You see, I thought as I was on the way south, I wouldn't need an overcoat. I'd hardly ever wanted it so far, and the waiter was a small, slim chap, not much bigger than I am. Anyhow, we shall soon be at the hotel now, and we can walk fast."
He looked so white and spirit-like in the mist, with his big bright eyes made brighter by the tired shadows underneath, that I would not discourage him with the truth. If I had said that I feared we were lost in the mist, and perhaps might not reach the hotel for hours, he would have realised all his weariness and suffering. I made him wait, however, and when the ghostly procession of man, woman, and beasts had trailed up to us, I ordered a stop for Finois to be unloaded, that my overcoat might be unearthed.
In place of the workmanlike pack which the mule might have borne, had I not insisted on fulfilling a rash vow, my luggage was contained in twin brown hold-alls bought at Martigny, and covered with a waterproof cloth which was the property of Joseph.
Both these abominable rolls had to be taken off Finois' back and laid upon the whitened grass, as I had forgotten in which one was stuffed the coat that I had not worn for many days. Now at this bitter | | 284 moment, could my valet but have known it, he had his full revenge. I longed for him as a thirsty traveller in the desert longs for a spring of water. Yet I knew, deep down in my desolate heart, that Locker would not have been able to cope with this crisis. In cities, he was more efficient than most of his kind, but the Unusual was a bugbear to him; and, lost in a freezing mountain mist, he would have lain down to die with my horrible hold-alls still strapped and bulging. It is a strange thing that most servants would consider themselves deeply injured if asked to bear half the hardships which their masters cheerfully undergo for the sheer fun of the thing.
Joseph came to my rescue, but, with all the good will in the world, he complicated matters. Finois, Fanny, and Souris pressed nearer, hoping for something to eat, and the two donkeys, discouraged and disheartened by the unexpected cold, were piteous, shivering objects, with their velvet hair bristling on end, their little legs knocking together. Even their faces seemed to have shrunk, and Fanny was all eyes and grey spectacles.
I opened the hateful object which, by its tuberculous knobs, I recognised as the one least often unpacked. It was there that I expected to find the coat, wrapped democratically round goodness knew how many spare boots, stockings, collars, and other small articles which Locker would never have allowed to come within speaking distance of each other. But, with the total depravity of inanimate things, the coat had escaped from the hold-all. In my certainty that I must come upon it sooner or later--at the bottom of everything, of course--I scattered the other contents recklessly about; and when at last I gave up the search in despair, the | | 285 white ground was strewn with the most intimate accessories of my toilet. Seized with a Berserker rage, I tore open the second hold-all, and before the Boy could utter a cry of protest, more collars, handkerchiefs, brushes, and little horrors of every description peppered the earth. There were as many things there as the inestimable mother of the Swiss Family Robinson contrived to stow in her wonderful bag during the five minutes before the shipwreck--things which fulfilled all the wants of the young Robinsons for the period of seventeen years. But, naturally, the one thing I needed was missing; and now that it was too late, I vaguely recalled seeing that overcoat hanging limply on a peg in the wardrobe of some hotel whose very name I had now forgotten.
If I had been a woman, I should inevitably have burst into tears, and somebody would have comforted me, and everything would immediately have been all right. As it was, I used several of Innocentina's most lurid phrases, under my breath, and announced my intention of abandoning my luggage on the mountain-side, rather than attempt the impossible task of feeding it again to the monsters which had disgorged it.
"Poor Man!" exclaimed the Boy. "Why didn't you confide to me before, that you were physically and mentally incapable of packing? I've often noticed that your hold-alls looked like overfed boa constrictors, but I didn't dream things were as bad as this. You had better let Innocentina and me do the work for you. We're what you call 'nailers' at it, I assure you."
I made a snatch at a dressing-gown, which I rescued from the conglomerate heap before he could | | 286 push me away. Then, with the garment hung over my arm, I stood by helplessly with Joseph, while Innocentina and the Boy, with incredible swiftness and skill, set about the business from which I had been dismissed. Somewhat after this fashion must the work of Creation have been done, when there was only Chaos to begin upon.
In five minutes all my scattered horrors had been sorted neatly, according to their species, like the animals forming in procession for the ark; collars after their kind; boots after their kind; and so on, down to the humble shoestring and mean shirt-stud. Never had those loathsome inventions of an evil mind, my hold-alls, so closely resembled self-respecting members of the luggage fraternity as they did when the Boy and Innocentina had finished with them.
With a sigh of relief the Little Pal jumped up from his grim task, leaving Joseph to fasten the straps; and as he got to his feet, his small hands purple with cold, I wrapped the dressing-gown round his shoulders. Then, seeing his slight figure engulfed in it, like a very small pea in a very big pod, I burst out laughing.
"Is that what you wanted?" cried the Boy. "I won't have it. I won't! I'd rather freeze than be a guy. Put it on yourself."
"I don't need it. It was for you. Don't be ungrateful, after all my trouble."
"All my trouble, you mean. Take off the horrid thing. I won't wear it. Let me alone."
Unmoved by his complaints, I still held him prisoner, using the dressing-gown as a strait-jacket, while he fought in my grasp. A sudden suppressed giggle from Innocentina at this juncture seemed to drive him to frenzy.| | 287
"If you don't let me go, I'll--I'll box your ears!" he stammered.
"Try it," I advised sternly.
He could not move his arms, so closely I held him, but his eyes were blazing.
"You'll be sorry for this some day," he panted.
"Will you keep on the dressing-gown, if I let you go?"
"Then will you wear my coat?"
"What! And have you in your shirt-sleeves? Rather not. Let me--"
"I'll give you the coat and wear the dressing-gown myself. I'm not as vain as a girl."
Whether the thought of what my appearance would be in the gown, or the taunt I flung at him, moved the Boy, I cannot say, but suddenly his struggles ceased.
"I'll wear anything you like," said he with a sudden accession of meekness, so unexpected that I was alarmed for his health, and gazed at him closely to see if he were on the verge of a collapse. Instead of looking ill, however, he was no longer pinched and pallid, but radiant with colour. Rage had produced a beneficial effect upon his circulation.
On his promise, I released him, nor did I insist when he waved me aside, and hurriedly girded up the dressing-gown himself. The garment reached almost to his feet, and the quaintness of the little figure shrouded in its dark folds and hatted with Panama straw, in the midst of a mountain snow-cloud, was a sight to make Fanny laugh; but I kept a grave face, and so did Joseph and Innocentina, though the donkey-girl's eyes were bright.| | 288
We marched on again when Finois had been reloaded, the party keeping well together, lest we should lose each other in this mist which was snow, this snow which was mist. The Boy and I walked ahead at first; I silent lest I should laugh, he silent--probably--lest he should cry. The woolly cloud wrapped its folds round us thicker and closer, so that objects a dozen feet away were blotted out of sight, and for all practical purposes ceased to exist. The silvery rime, freezing as it fell, covered stones and boulders so that it was no longer possible to see the red splashes which marked the way. Soon, we were hopelessly lost, plunging down into grassy hollows, where our feet slipped between rough stones into muddy ruts concealed under a treacherous film of white, or plodding up to the top of knolls which proved to have no connection with anything else, when we had toilsomely attained them.
By-and-bye I knew how a man feels in a treadmill, and I was anxious for the Boy's sake, seeing the queer little figure in the panama and dressing-gown gradually droop, despite the brave spirit with which it was animated. Losing confidence in my boasted ability as a pioneer, I called Joseph to the rescue, and bade him take the lead.
Having intruded upon him suddenly, behind the screen of snow-cloud, I found him engaged in the Samaritan act--no doubt carried out on purely humanitarian principles--of warming one of Innocentina's hands in his. I simulated blindness with such histrionic skill that honest Joseph was deceived thereby; but not so Innocentina. She tossed her head, and folded her arms in her cape as if it had been the toga of a Roman senator unjustly accused of treason. She had been, so she assured me, at that | | 289 instant on the point of coming forward to entreat her young monsieur to mount Fanny, since he must be deadly tired; but the Boy, joining us at the moment, denied excessive fatigue and said that he would freeze if he rode. Besides, he added, it would be cruel to burden Fanny, in her present state of depression. The most likely thing was that we should have to carry her; and if she continued to shrink at her present rate per minute, soon we could slip her into one of our pockets.
Joseph, promoted to the post of honour, forged ahead; and either Fanny and Souris insisted upon following Finois, or else Innocentina felt called upon to continue the process of conversion even in adverse circumstances; at all events, the Boy and I almost immediately found ourselves in the background, all that we could see of our companions being a tassel-like grey tail quivering above a moving blur of little legs, scarcely thicker than toothpicks.
The Boy, who was still sulking in the dressing-gown, suddenly broke by a spasmodic chuckle the silence which had blended chillingly with the weather.
"What's up?" I enquired, thawing joyously in the brief gleam of moral sunshine.
"I was only thinking that if Innocentina wants to convert Joseph from heresy she'd better not lecture him to-day about eternal fire. The idea is too inviting. I never envied anyone so much as my namesake, St. Laurence, on his gridiron. It would be a luxury to grill."
"Perhaps the gridiron was to him what my dressing-gown is to you," said I.
"I'm getting resigned to it. That's the reason I'm talking to you. I hated you for five minutes; | | 290 but--you never like people so much as when you've just finished hating them."
"Which means that I'm forgiven?"
"That, and something more."
"Good Imp! The thermometer is rising. But I feel a beast to have got you into this scrape. If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have known that a mule-path existed on Mont Revard."
"I'm not sorry we came. This will be something to remember always. It's a real adventure. Afterwards we shall get the point of view."
"I wish we could get one now," said I. "But the prospect isn't cheerful. Molly Winston's prophecy is being fulfilled. She was certain that sooner or later I should be lost on a mountain; and her sketch of me, curled up in sleeping-sack and tent, toasting my toes before a fire of twigs, and eating tinned soup, steaming hot, made me long to lose myself immediately. But, alas! a peasant child near Piedimulera is basking at this moment in my woolly sack, and battening on my Instantaneous Breakfasts."
"Don't think of them," said the Boy. "That way madness lies. A chapter in my book shall be called, 'How to be Happy though Freezing.'"
"What would be your definition of the state, precisely?"
"Being with Somebody you--like."
My temperature bounded up several degrees, thanks to these amends, but our sole comfort was in each,other, since Joseph had no hope to give. At this moment he parted the mist-curtain to remark that he could find no traces of a path or landmark of any kind.
Hours dragged on, and we were still wandering aimlessly, as one wanders in a troubled dream. We | | 291 were chilled to the bone, and as it was by this time late in the afternoon, I began to fear that we should have to spend the night on the mountain-side. Revard was wreaking vengeance upon us for taking his name in vain. We had made naught of him as a mountain; now he was showing us that, were he sixteen thousand feet high instead of four, he could scarcely put us to more serious inconvenience.
I was growing gravely anxious about the Boy, though the bitter cold and great fatigue had not quenched his spirit, when the smell of cattle and the muffled sound of human voices put life into the chill, dead body of the mist. A house loomed before us, and I sprang to the comforting conclusion that we had stumbled upon one of the outlying offices of the hotel, but an instant showed me my mistake. The low building was a rough stone châlet with two or three cowherds outside the door, and these men stared in surprise and curiosity at our ghostly party.
"Are we far from the hotel?" I asked in French, but no gleam of understanding lightened their faces; and it was not until Joseph had addressed them in the most extraordinary patois I had ever heard, that they showed signs of intelligence. "Hoo-a-long, hoo-a-long, walla-ha?" he remarked, or words to that effect.
"Squall-a-doo, soo-a-lone, bolla-hang," returned one of the men, suddenly wound up to gesticulate with violence.
"He says that the hotel is about half an hour's walk from here," Joseph explained to me, looking wistful. And my own feelings gave me the clue to that look's significance.
"Thank goodness!" I exclaimed heartily. "But it would be tempting Providence to pass this house, | | 292 which is at least a human habitation, without resting and warming the blood in our veins. Perhaps we can get something to eat for ourselves and the donkeys--to say nothing of something to drink."
Another exchange of words like brickbats afforded us the information, when translated, that could obtain black bread, cheese, and brandy; also that we were welcome to sit before the fire.
I pushed the Boy in ahead of me, but he fell back. The stench which struck us in the face as the door opened was like an evil-smelling pillow, thrown with good aim by an unseen hand. Mankind, dog-kind, cow-kind, chicken-kind, and cheese-kind, together with many ingredients unknown to science, combined in the making of this composite odour, and its strength sent the Boy reeling into my arms.
"No, I can't stand it," he gasped. " I shall faint. Better freeze than suffocate."
But I forced him in; and in five minutes, to our own self-loathing, we had become almost inured to the smell. Eat we could not, but we drank probably the worst brandy in all Europe or Asia, and slowly our blood began once more to take its normal course. A spurious animation soon enabled the Boy to start on again; one of the cowherds pointed out the path, and for a time all went well with our little band, even Fanny and Souris having revived on black crusts of mediæval bread. But the half-hour in which we had been told we might cover the distance between châlet and hotel lengthened into an hour. The mist grew greyer, and thicker, and darker, misleading us almost as cleverly as its sophisticated English cousin, a London fog. Again and again we lost our way. Owing to the fatigue of the Boy and Innocentina, and the utter dejection of the unfortu- | | 293 nate little donkeys, we could not walk fast enough to keep our blood warm, and my tweeds, in which I was buttoned to the chin, seemed to afford no more protection than newspaper.
When I remarked this to the Boy he replied with a faint chuckle that he felt like a newspaper himself--"a newspaper," he repeated, shivering, "with the smallest circulation in the world. And if it weren't for your dressing-gown there wouldn't be any circulation left at all."
The day, which had begun in summer and ended in winter, was darkening to night when Joseph, who was in advance, cried out that he had flattened his nose against something solid, which was probably the wall of the hotel. No blur of yellow light penetrated the gloom, but a few minutes of anxious groping brought us to a door--rather an elaborate, pretentious door, which instantly dispelled all fear that we had come upon another châlet, or perchance a barn.
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