- CHAPTER XXV. The Americans
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WHILE Joseph and Innocentina remained outside with the animals, the Boy and I entered a long, dark corridor, dimly lighted at the far end. Half-way down we came upon a porter, whose look of surprise would have told us (if we had not learned through bitter experience already) that Mont Revard's season was over. He guided us to the door of a large salon, which he threw open with an air of wishing to justify the hotel; and despite the load of weariness under which the Boy was almost fainting,he whipped the dressing-gown off in a flash, shook the snow from his panama, squaring his little shoulders, and re-entered civilisation with a jauntiness which denied exhaustion and did credit to his pride. Nevertheless; he availed himself of the first easy-chair, and dropped into it as a ripe apple drops from its leafy home into the long grass.
The porter scampered off to send us the landlord, and to see to the comfort of Joseph and Innocentina, until they and their charges could be definitely provided for. While we waited--the Boy leaning back, pale and silent, in an exaggerated American rocking-chair, I standing on guard beside him--there was time to look about at our surroundings.| | 295
The room was immense, and on a warm, bright day of midsummer might have been delightful, with its polished mosaic floor, its painted basket chairs and little tables, and its standard lamps with coloured silk shades. But to-day a stuffy, red-curtained bar-parlour would have been more cheerful.
At first, I thought we were alone in the waste of painted wicker-work, for there had been dead silence on our entrance; but hardly had we settled ourselves to await the coming of the landlord, when a movement at the far end of the big, dim room told me that it had other occupants. Two men in knickerbockers were sitting on low chairs drawn close to a fireplace, and both were looking round at us with evident curiosity.
As the Boy's chair had its high back half-turned in their direction, all they could see of him was a little hand dangling over the arm of the chair, and a small foot in a stout, workmanlike walking boot, laced far up the ankle. I stood facing them; and though the sole illumination came flickering from a newly kindled fire, or filtered through the red shades of three large lamps, not only could they see what manner of man I was, but I could study their personal characteristics.
In these I was conscious of no lively interest; but as the men continued to gaze over their shoulders at me, and the Boy's chair, I decided that they were from the States. They were both young, clean-shaven, good-looking; with clear features, keen eyes, and prominent chins, reminiscent of the attractive "Gibson type" of American youth.
"Well," said one to the other, turning away from his brief but steady inspection of the newcomers, "I thought we were the only two fools stranded here | | 296 for the night in this weather, but it seems there are a couple more."
Their voices had a carrying quality which brought the words distinctly to our ears. Suddenly the "rocker" was agitated, and the Boy's feet came to the ground. Nervously, he jerked the chair round so that its back was completely turned to the men at the other end of the room. His eyes looked so big, and his face was so deeply stained with a quick rush of colour, that I feared he was ill.
"Anything wrong?" I asked, bending towards him, with my hand on his chair.
"Nothing. I was only--a little surprised to hear people talking, that's all. I thought we had the room to ourselves."
His voice was a whisper, and I pitched mine to his in answering. "So did I at first, but it seems two countrymen of yours are before us. I wonder if they have had adventures to equal ours? Probably we shall find out at dinner, for this looks the sort of hotel to herd its guests together at one long table."
The Boy's hand closed sharply on the arm of his chair. "I'm too tired to dine in public," said he, still in the same muffled voice. "I shall have something to eat in my room--if I ever get one."
"If that's your game," said I, "I'll play it with you. We'll ask them to give us a sitting-room of sorts, and we'll dine there together like kings."
"No, no. You must go down. I shall have my dinner in bed. I'm worn out. What are--those men at the other end of the room like?"
"Like sketches from New York Life", I replied. "One is dark, the other fair, with a deep cleft in his chin, and a nose so straight it might | | 297 have been ruled. Better take a look at them. Perhaps you may have met at home."
"All the more reason for not looking," said the Boy. "Thank goodness, here comes the landlord."
We could have had twenty rooms if we wished, for, said our host, throwing a glance across the salon, he had only two other guests besides ourselves. They had come up by the funicular, meaning to walk next morning down to Chambéry, but whether they could do so or not depended on the weather. In any case, the hotel would close for the season in a few days now, and the funicular cease to run. Fires should be laid in our rooms immediately, and we should be made comfortable, but as for our animals, unfortunately there were no stables attached to the hotel, no accommodation whatever for four-footed creatures. They would have to go back to the châlet, where they and their drivers could be put up for the night.
"That will not do for Innocentina," exclaimed the boy quickly. In his eagerness he raised his voice slightly, and the two young men at the other end of the salon seemed waked suddenly to renewed interest in us and our affairs. But the Boy's tone fell again instantly. "Innocentina must have a room at this hotel," he went on. "The châlet will be bad enough for Joseph. For her it would be impossible. Joseph won't mind taking the donkeys down and caring for them this one night, for Innocentina's sake."
"If I know Joseph, it will afford him infinite satisfaction; and the more intense his physical suffering, the happier he'll be in the thought that he is bearing it for her," I replied. "I'll go out and break the news to the poor chap."
The Boy sprang up. "No, no; don't leave me | | 298 alone!" he cried. Then, as I looked surprised, he added, more quietly: "I mean I'll go with you, and talk to Innocentina. Meanwhile, our things can be sent up to our rooms."
Though he had asked "what the men at the other end of the room were like," he showed no desire to verify for himself the description I had given. He kept his back religiously turned towards his countrymen, and did not throw a single glance their way as we left the salon with the landlord, though I saw that the two young Americans were interested in him.
We returned to the door at the end of the long corridor, where we had entered the hotel ten or fifteen minutes earlier, and found Joseph, Innocentina, and the animals still sheltering against the house wall. The porter had already retailed the bad news, and the faithful muleteer had of his own accord volunteered to play the part which the Boy and I had assigned him. Though he was tired, cold, and hungry, and had the prospect of a gloomy walk, with a night of discomfort to follow, he was far from being depressed; and I thought I knew what supported him in his hour of trial.
We saw him off, followed by a piteous trail of asshood, and then, shivering once more, we reentered the dim corridor. Innocentina, much subdued, was with us now, carrying the famous bag in its snow-powdered rücksack, while a porter went before with the rest of the luggage, taken from the tired backs of our beasts. We had reached the foot of the stairs, when we came so suddenly face to face with the two Americans that it almost seemed we had stumbled upon an ambush.
They stared very hard at the Boy, who did not | | 299 give them a glance, though I was conscious of a stiffening of his muscles. He turned his head a little on one side, so that the shadow of the panama eclipsed his face from their point of view; but I could see that he had first grown scarlet, then white.
"By Jove, but it can't be possible! " I heard one of the men say as we passed and began to ascend the stairs. The answer I did not hear; but Innocentina, who was close behind me, glared with unchristian malevolence at the young men, as if instinct whispered that they were concerning themselves unnecessarily about her master's business.
The Boy ran upstairs as lightly as if he had never known fatigue. The porter showed him his room; his luggage was taken in, and then he came out to me in the passage.
"You told Joseph that he needn't come up very early to-morrow, didn't you?" he enquired.
"Yes, as we're pretty well fagged, and Chambéry isn't an all-day's journey, I thought we might take our time in the morning. That suits you, doesn't it?" (It was really of him that I had been thinking, but I did not say so.)
"Oh, yes," he answered absentmindedly, as if already his brain were busy with something else. "What time did you fix for starting? I didn't hear."
"I said to Joseph that it would do if he were on hand at half-past ten. You can rest till nine o'clock."
"Thank you. And now, good night. You've been very kind to-day. Maybe I didn't seem grateful, but I was, all the same; very, very grateful."
"Nonsense!" said I. "If you're too tired to go down, shan't I have my dinner with you? We could | | 300 have a table drawn up before the fire, and it would be quite jolly."
He shook his head, a great weariness in his eyes.
"I'm too done up for society, even yours. I'd rather you went down. You will, won't you?"
"Certainly, if you won't have me. Rest well.I shall see that they send you up something decent."
"It doesn't matter. I'm not as hungry as I was, somehow. Good night, Man."
"Good night, Boy."
"Shake hands, will you?"
He pressed mine with all his little force, and shook it again and again, looking up in my face. Then he bade me "Good night" once more, abruptly, and retreated into his room.
I went to my quarters at the other end of the passage, and was glad of the fire which had begun to roar fiercely in a small round stove, like a gnome with a pipe growing out of his head. I had sponge, changed, and descended to the salon, only to learn that the eating arrangements were carried on in another building, at some distance from the hotel. Feeling like a belated insect of summer overtaken by winter cold, I darted down the path indicated, to the restaurant, where I found the Americans, already seated at just such a long table as I had pictured, and still in their knickerbockers. There was, in the big room, a sprinkling of little tables under the closed windows, but they were not laid for a meal; and a chair being pulled out for me, by a waiter, exactly opposite my two fellow-guests,I took it and sat down.
My first thought was to order something for the Little Pal, and to secure a promise that it should reach him hot, and soon. I then devoted myself to | | 301 my own dinner, which would have been more enjoyable had I had the Boy's companionship. I had worked slowly through soup and fish, and arrived at the inevitable veal, when I was addressed by one of the Americans--him of the cleft chin and light curly hair, whose voice I had heard first in the salon.
"You came up by the mule path, didn't you?"
I answered civilly in the affirmative, aware that all my "points" were being noted by both men.
"Must have been a stiff journey in this weather."
"We came into the mist and snow just below the Col."
"Your friend is done up, isn't he?"
"Oh, he's a very plucky young chap," I replied, careful for the Boy's reputation as a pilgrim; "but he's a bit fagged, and will be better off dining in his own room."
"I expect he'll be all right to-morrow. Are you going to try and get to Chambéry, or will you return to Aix by train?"
"We shall push on, unless we're snowed in," I said.
"That's our plan, too. I dare say we shall be starting about the same time, and if so, if you don't mind, we might join forces."
"Now, what is this chap's game?" I asked myself. "He isn't drawing me out for nothing; and as these two are together they have no need of companionship. There's some special reason why they want to join us."
Taking this for granted, the one reason which occurred to me as probable, was a previous acquaintance with the Boy, which they wished to keep up, and he did not wish to acknowledge. I deter- | | 302 mined that he should not be thus entrapped, through me.
"That would be very pleasant, no doubt," I replied; "but you had better not wait for us. Our time of starting is uncertain."
Though I spoke with perfect civility, it must have been clear to them that I preferred not to have my party enlarged by strangers, and I rather regretted the necessity for this ungraciousness, as the men were gentlemen, and I usually got on excellently with Americans.
"Oh, very well," returned the handsomer of the two, looking slightly offended. "We shall meet on the way down, perhaps. By-the-by, if I'm not mistaken, your young friend is a compatriot of ours. He's American, isn't he?"
"I believe I've met him in New York, though it was so dark I couldn't be sure. Do you object to telling me his name?'
"I'm afraid I do object," I answered, stiffly this time. "You must satisfy yourself as to his identity, if it interests you, when you see each other to-morrow."
Of all that remained of dinner, I can only say the words which Hamlet spoke in dying; for indeed, "the rest was silence."
Directly the meal was over, I hurried back to the hotel, like a rabbit to its warren; smoked a pipe before a roaring fire in my bedroom, and wondered if the Little Pal were wandering "down the uncompanioned way" of dreamland. As for me, I never got as far as that land. I fell over a precipice without a bottom, before my head had found a nest in the soft pillow, and knew nothing more until | | 303 suddenly I started awake with the impression that someone had called.
"What is it, Boy? Do you want me?" I heard myself asking sharply, as my eyes opened.
It seemed that I had not been asleep for ten minutes, but to my surprise an exquisite, rosy light filled the room. Well-nigh before I knew whether I were sleeping or waking, I was out of bed and at the window.
It was the light of sunrise, shining over a billowy white world, for the fog had been rent asunder, and through its torn, woolly folds, I caught an unforgettable glimpse of glory. The sky was a rippling lake of red-gold fire, whose reflection turned a hundred snow-clad mountain-crests to blazing helmets for Titans. Above the majestic ranks rose their leader, towering head and shoulders over all. "Mont Blanc!" I had just time to say to myself in awed admiration, when the snow-fog was knit together again, only a jagged line of fading gold showing the stitches.
Nobody had called me; I knew that, now, yet I had an uneasy impression that someone wanted me somewhere, and that something was wrong. It was stupid to let this worry me, I told myself, however; and having lingered a few moments at the window studying the lovely pattern of frost-work lace on the glass, and the fringe of priceless pearls on branch of bush, and stunted tree, I went back to bed. There, I pulled my watch out from under my pillow, and looked at it. "Only six o'clock," I yawned. "Three good hours more of sleep. I wonder if the Boy--" Then I tumbled over another pleasant precipice.
When I waked again, it was almost nine, and | | 304 nerving myself to the inevitable, I rang for a cold bath. The morning was bitterly chill, but the tingling water soon sent the blood racing through my veins, and by ten o'clock I was knocking at Boy's door. No answer came, and thinking that he must already be down, I was on my way across the white, frozen grass to the restaurant, when I met the muleteer coming up with Finois.
"Hallo, Joseph!" I exclaimed in surprise "Where are Fanny and Souris?"
"Innocentina has taken them, Monsieur," he answered.
"What--they have started?"
"But yes, Monsieur, and very early."
"Tell me what happened," I prompted him.
"Why, Monsieur, it was this way. There was not much sleep for me last night, if you will pardon my liberty in mentioning such matters, because of the little animal which bites and jumps away. I know not what you call him in your language, though I think he is known in all lands. Besides the beasts were noisy in the stable underneath the room where I lay with the men. About half-past four the others got up, but I lay still, as it was well with my animals, and there was no hurry. But a little more than an hour later, they called me from below, laughing, and saying there was a lady to see me. I had not undressed, Monsieur, for many reasons, and now I was glad, for I knew who it must be, though not why she should be there, and so early too. I could not bear that she should be alone with these rough fellows, and in two minutes I had tumbled down the ladder.
"I had not been mistaken, Monsieur. It was Innocentina. She said her master had sent her | | 305 down to fetch the ânes, as he was obliged by certain circumstances to start on in advance of my master. I did not ask her any questions, but I helped her get ready the donkeys, and I would have walked up with her to the hotel, had she permitted it. If I did so, she said, the cattle men would talk; so I stayed behind."
"Well, I suppose we shall overtake them," I replied, hiding surprise, as I did not care to let Joseph see that I had been left in the dark concerning this strange change of programme. My mind groped for an explanation of the mystery, and then suddenly seized upon one. The Boy, who had evidently met his two compatriots in other days and another land, disliked and wished to shun them. He had feared that they might be our companions down to Chambéry, and had taken drastic measures to avoid their society. Rather than get me up early, for his convenience, after a day of some hardship and fatigue, the plucky little chap had gone off without us. Possibly I should find that he had left a note for me, with some waiter or femme de chambre. If not, our route down to Chambéry and the hotel at which we were to stay there, had already been decided upon. He would have said to himself that there could be no mistake, and that he might trust me to find him at our destination.
The Americans were not at breakfast, but later, as Joseph, Finois, and I were starting, I saw them standing at a distance in the corridor. The porter, who had brought down the miserable hold-alls, and was waiting for his tip, murmured that "ces messieurs" were not going to make the walking expedition to Chambéry; the landlord had advised them that the weather was too bad, and they | | 306 had decided to return by the noon train to Aix-les-Bains.
I felt that I owed the young men a grudge for the Boy's defection; and as there had been no note or message from him, I was not in a forgiving mood. Without a second glance towards the pair, I walked away with Joseph--alone with him for the first time in many a day.
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