- CHAPTER XXVI The Vanishing of the Prince
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The Vanishing of the Prince
It is, Adieu, adieu! remember me."
As we dipped down below the summit of the mountain, we stepped from under the snow-fog, as if it had been a great white, hanging nightcap. The air smelled like early winter, and was vibrant with the melody of cowbells. On snow-covered eminences near and far, dark, sentinel larches watched us, weeping slow tears from every naked spine. So high had they climbed, so acclimatised to the mountains did these soldier-trees seem, that I named them for myself the Chasseurs Alpins of the forest.
"We shall have fine weather to-morrow," said Joseph, as we left the snow and came to what he called the "terre grasse," which was greasy and slippery under foot. "See, Monsieur, a worm; he comes up out of his hole, and the earth clings to him as he walks abroad. If he were clean, that would be a sign of another bad day to follow."
"At least we are going down to summer again," I replied; "also to the young Monsieur; and to Innocentina. But perhaps you are glad of a rest from her sharp tongue."
308 The Princess Passesand I was still more keenly aware that I missed a comrade. My fleeting impressions were hardly worth catching and taming, without him to help cage them; without his vivid mind to help colour the thoughts, which mine only sketched in black and white, it was easier to leave the canvas blank.
We had decided last night that it would not be wise to attempt the journey by way of the Dent du Nivolets, as it was on a higher level than the summit of Mont Revard, and we should risk being again extinguished under a nightcap of snow. We descended, therefore, by the simpler and shorter route, but it was full of interest for the strangeness of the landscape, and the buildings which we reached on lower planes.
The houses were no longer characteristically French, but a bastard Swiss. The heavy, overhanging roofs were thatched, and of enormous thickness; the walls of grey stone, with roughly carved, skeleton balconies. The peasants no longer smiled at us in good-natured curiosity, but regarded us dourly, though they were gravely civil if we had questions to ask.
Although I gave Joseph no instructions, and he made no suggestions, by common consent we hastened on as if a prize were to be bestowed for our good speed, at the end of the journey. On other days we had sauntered, allowing the animals to snatch delicious hors d'œuvres from the bushes as they passed, but to-day Finois was in the depths of gloom. There was no grey Souris, no spectacled Fanny-anny to cheer him on the way, and if he reached out a wistful mouth towards a branch, he was hurried past it. How would we feel, I asked myself, if, with the inner man clamouring, we
309 The Vanishing of the Princewere driven remorselessly along a road decked on either side with exquisitely appointed tables, set out with all our favourite dishes, to be had for nothing--never once allowed to stop for a crumb of pâté de foie gras, or a bit of chicken in aspic? Yet asking myself this, I had no mercy on Finois.
We stopped for lunch at a queer auberge, in an abortive village appropriately named Les Déserts, where the highroad for Chambéry began. An outer room roughly flagged with stone, was kitchen, nursery, and family living-room in one. It swarmed with children, and was presided over by two of Macbeth's witches, who were not separated from their cauldrons. I took them to be rival mothers-in-law, and they could have taught Innocentina some choice new expressions valuable to test upon donkeys or other heretics; but they sent me a steaming bowl of excellent coffee, when I half expected poison; fried me a couple of eggs with crisp brown lace round the edges, and took for my benefit, from one of the shelves that lined the nursery wall, the newest of a hundred loaves of hard black bread.
I ventured to ask a down-trodden daughter-in-law of the Ladies of the Cauldrons, whether a very young gentleman, and an older but still all-young woman, with two donkeys, had stopped at the auberge some hours earlier.
The spiritless one shook her head. But no. The only other customers of the house thus far had been the postman and two soldiers. The party might have passed. She and her parents were too busy to take note of what went on outside. A faint chill of desolation touched me. It would have been cheering to have news of the Boy and his cavalcade en route.
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By three o'clock Chambéry was well in sight, lying far below us as we wound down from mountain heights, and looking, from our point of view, in position something like an inferior Aosta. It basked in a great sun-swept plain, and away to the left a lateral valley, dimly blue, opened towards Modane and the Mont Cenis. Descending, we found the resemblance carried on by a few ancient châteaux and fortified farmhouses, and as we had now come upon a part of the road which Joseph knew, he pointed out to me, in the far distance, the little villa, Les Charmettes, where Rousseau and Madame de Warens kept house together. Again and again I thought we were on the point of arriving in the town, and had visions of exchanging adventures with the Boy at the Hôtel de France; but always the place seemed to recede before our eyes, elusive as a mirage, alighting again five or six miles away; and this it did, not once, but several times, with singular skill and accuracy.
At last, however, after a tedious tramp along a monotonously level road, upon which we had plunged suddenly, we came into an old town, all grey, with the soft grey of storks' wings. The place had a mild dignity of its own--as befitted the ancient capital of Savoie--and might have lived, if necessary, on the romantic reputation of its ancient château, standing up high and majestic above a populous modern street. There was an air of almost courtly refinement that reminded me of the wide, sedate avenues of Versailles; and no doubt this effect was largely due to the fine statues and decorative grouping of the arcaded streets. One monument was so imposing and so unique, that I forgot for a moment my anxiety to find the Boy and
311 The Vanishing of the Princehear his news. The huge pile held me captive, staring up at a miniature Nelson column, supported on the backs of four colossal elephants sculptured in grey granite of true elephant-colour. These benevolent mammoths, not content with the duty of bearing a tower of stone with a more than life-sized general balancing on top of it, generously spent their spare time in pouring volumes of water from wrinkled trunks into a huge basin. Joseph knew that the balancing general, De Boigne, had used a vast fortune made in the service of an Indian prince, to shower benefits on his native town, as his elephants showered water, and that it was in gratitude to him that Chambéry had raised the monument; but I was disappointed to learn that the elephants had no prototypes in real life. It would have satisfied my imagination to hear that the soldier of fortune had returned from the Orient to his birthplace, with the four original elephants following him like dogs, having refused to be left behind. But nothing is quite perfect in history, and one usually feels that one could have arranged the incidents more dramatically one's self; indeed, some historians seem to have found the temptation irresistible.
Joseph promised other choice bits of interest in and near mountain-ringed Chambéry; but I had small appetite for sightseeing without the Boy, and after my brief reverence to the elephants, I hurried the muleteer and mule to the hotel.
At the door we were met by a porter, far too polite a person to betray the surprise which my companions Joseph and Finois invariably excited in civilisation. He helped to unfasten the pack, and as it disappeared into the vestibule, I was about to bid Joseph au revoir. But his face gave me pause.
312 The Princess PassesLike the key to a cipher, it told me all the secret workings of his mind.
"You might wait here before putting up Finois," I said, "until I enquire inside whether the young Monsieur and Innocentina have arrived safely. No doubt they have, as we did not catch them up on the road, and it would have been difficult to mistake the way. Still--"
"Voilà, Monsieur!" exclaimed Joseph, his deep eyes brightening at something to be seen over my shoulder.
I turned, and there was meek, grey Souris leading the way for Innocentina and Fanny, who were trailing slowly towards us down the street.
I was delighted to see them. Not until now had I realised how beautiful was Innocentina, how engaging the two little plush-coated donkeys. I loved all three.
"Eh bien, Innocentina!" I gaily.cried. "How, are you? How is your young Monsieur?"
"He was well when I saw him last," returned Innocentina. "He must be very far away by this time."
"Very far away?" I echoed her words blankly.
"Yes, Monsieur. Here is a letter, which he told, me to deliver to you without fail. I was not to leave Chambéry until I had put it into your hand, myself. I was on my way to your hotel, to see if you had arrived. Now that I have seen you"--here a starry flash at Joseph--"I can begin my journey."
"Where, if I may ask?"
"Towards my home. Monsieur had better read his letter."
I had taken the sealed envelope mechanically, without looking at it. Now I fixed my eyes upon
313 The Vanishing of the Princethe address, which was written in a firm, original, and interesting hand, that impressed me as familiar, though I could not think where I had seen it. Certainly, so far as I could remember, in all my journeyings with him I had never happened to see the Boy's handwriting. Yet Innocentina said this letter was from him.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I could do something more enlightening than stare at the envelope: I could open it. I did so, breaking a seal with the same monogram I had noticed on the gold fittings in the celebrated bag. Apparently the entwined letters were M. R. L.
"Forgive me, dear Man," were the first words I read, and they rang like a knell in my heart. Without going further I knew what was coming. I was to hear that I had lost the Boy.
"Dear Man, the Prince vanishes, not because he wishes it, but because he must. He can't explain. But, though you may not understand now, believe this. He has been happier in these wanderings, since you and he were friends, than he ever was before. You have been more than good to the troublesome 'Brat' who has upset all your arrangements and calculations so often. Perhaps you may never see the Boy any more. Yet, who knows what may happen at Monte Carlo? Anyhow, whatever comes in the future, he will never forget, never cease to care for you; and of one thing besides he is sure. Never again will he like any other man as much as the One Man who deserves to begin with a capital.
"Good-bye, dear Man, and all good things be with you, wherever you may go, is the prayer of--Boy."
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Perhaps never to see the Boy again! Why, I must be dreaming this. I should wake up soon, and everything would be as it had been. I had the sensation of having swallowed something very large and very cold, which would not melt. Reading the letter over for the second time made it no better, but rather worse. The Boy had become almost as important in my scheme of life as my lungs or my legs, and I did not quite see, at the moment, how it would be any more possible to get on without one than the other.
Behold, I was stricken down by mine own familiar friend; yet no wrath against him burned within me; there was only that cold lump of disappointment, which seemed to be increasing to the size of a small iceberg. Even lacking explanations, or attempt at them, I knew that he had told the truth without flattery. He had wanted to stay, yet he had gone. And he said that perhaps I might never see him again! If I could have had my choice last night, whether to have the Boy lopped off my life, or to lose a hand, the probabilities are that I would have sacrificed the hand. But I had been offered no choice.
I recalled our parting, and found new meaning in the words he had spoken at his door. There was no doubt about it; even then he had decided to break away from me.
I realised this, and at the same instant rebelled against the decision. I determined not to accept it. He had vanished because of the two Americans; exactly why, I could not even guess, but I was certain that the reason was not to his discredit. To theirs, perhaps, but not to his. Nevertheless, they were somehow to blame for my loss, and if the
315 The Vanishing of the Princeyoung men had appeared at this moment, I should have been impelled to do them a mischief.
The principal thing was, however, not to let them cheat me irrevocably of my comrade. I would not depend solely upon that hint about Monte Carlo. I would find out where he had gone, and I would follow. Let him be angry if he would. His anger, though a hot flame while it burned, never endured long.
"Did Monsieur leave here by rail?" I enquired of Innocentina.
She shrugged her shoulders. "That I cannot tell."
"Do you mean you can't, or won't?"
"I know nothing, Monsieur, except that I have been paid well, and told that I may go home as soon as I like, and by what route I like, having delivered the letter to Monsieur. My young master gave me enough to return with the donkeys to Mentone all the way from Chambéry by rail if I chose; but I prefer to walk down, and keep the extra money for my dot. It will make me a good one."
I am not sure that, before disentangling a huge bottle-fly from Fanny's long lashes, she did not glance under her own at Joseph, when giving this information.
"Look here, Innocentina," I said beguilingly, "tell me which way, and how, your young Monsieur has gone, and I will double that dot of yours."
"Not if you would quadruple it, Monsieur. I promised my master to say nothing."
"Couldn't you get absolution for breaking a promise?"
316 The Princess PassesIt is only heretics who break their promises, and take money for it--like Judas Iscariot."
Joseph did not charge at this red rag, but looked so utterly depressed that Innocentina's eyes relented.
"Very well," I said. "You deserve praise for your loyalty. I ought not to have tried to corrupt it. But, you know, I shall find out in the town, or at the railway station."
Innocentina smiled. "I do not think so, Monsieur."
"We shall see," I retorted. "Joseph, where is the railway station?"
Joseph pointed, accompanying his gesture with directions. Then he offered to be my guide, but I refused his services and left him with Innocentina, having bidden him call at my room in the hotel for instructions later.
But the prophecy of Innocentina the Seeress was fulfilled. I could learn nothing of the Boy or his movements, at the gare of Chambéry. Several trains had gone out, bound for several destinations in different directions, during the past three hours, and no one answering the description I gave of the Boy had been seen to leave.
Sadder, but no wiser, I returned to the Hôtel de France, and asked if a youth of seventeen, "with large blue eyes, chestnut hair which curled, a complexion tanned brown, a panama hat, and a suit of navy-blue serge knickerbockers," had lunched there.
The answer was no. Such a young gentleman had not come to the hotel, nor had he been noticed in the town, either with or without a young woman Pad a couple of donkeys.
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I had no more than finished my questionings and gone up to my room, when Joseph arrived--a wistful, expectant Joseph, with a deep light of excitement burning in his eyes.
"Any news?" I asked.
"No, Monsieur, except that in an hour Innocentina starts to walk on to Les Echelles with her ânes."
"She is energetic."
"The girl knows not what is the fatigue. Besides, each day less on the road means so many more francs added to the dot."
"Innocentina seems very keen upon increasing that dot. Has she anyone in view to share it with her?"
"She has not confided that to me, Monsieur."
"I suppose he would have to be a good Catholic?"
"Of that I am not so sure. I do not think she would object to a good Protestant, if he would allow the children to be brought up in her faith."
"The lady is brave. She takes time by the forelock."
"It is the wise way, Monsieur."
"Well, whoever he may be, I am sure you do not envy the future mari, dot or no dot. Your opinion of Innocentina--"
"Ah, it is changed, Monsieur, completely changed, I confess."
"Then, after all, it is Innocentina who has converted you."
Joseph bent his head to hide a flush. "Perhaps, Monsieur, if you put it in that way. Yet it was not of myself nor of Innocentina I came to talk, but of the plans of Monsieur."
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"Plans? I've no plans," I answered dejectedly.
"Will Monsieur wish to proceed to-morrow morning as usual?"
"Proceed where?" I gloomily capped his question with another.
"On the way south, towards the Riviera, is it not? If we made an early start, it might be possible to go by the route of la Grande Chartreuse, and reach the monastery late in the afternoon. If Monsieur wished to sleep there, travellers are accommodated at the Sister House, which has been turned into an hôtellerie since the expulsion of the Order."
I reflected a moment before replying. On the face of it, it appeared like weakness to change my plans simply because I had been deserted by a comrade whose very existence had been unknown to me when first I made them. Yet, on the other hand, I had grown so used to his companionship now, that the thought of continuing my journey without him was distasteful. With the Little Pal, no day had ever seemed too long, no misadventure but had had its spice. Lacking the Little Pal, the vista of day after day spent in covering the country at the rate of three miles an hour loomed before me monotonous as the treadmill. My gorge rose against it. I could not go on as I had begun. Why punish myself by a diet of salt when the savour had gone?
"Joseph," I said at last, "the disappearance of the young Monsieur has been a blow to me, I admit. It has destroyed my appetite for sightseeing, for the moment, at all events. I can't rearrange my plans instantly; but this I have determined. I'll end my walking-tour here. What to do afterwards I will make up my mind in good time, but meanwhile,
319 The Vanishing of the PrinceI won't keep you dancing attendance upon me. You will be anxious to get back home--"
"Monsieur, I have no home." There was despair in Joseph's tone, and suddenly the keen point of truth pierced the armour of my selfishness. Poor Joseph, facing exile--from Innocentina--and keeping his countenance politely, while I densely discoursed of "blows"! Being a muleteer "farmed out" by a master, he was at the mercy of Fate, and temporarily I represented Fate. He could not journey on southwards, whither his heart was wandering, unless I bade him go. This fine fellow, this old soldier, was as much at my orders as if I had been a king.
"If you aren't in a hurry to get back to Martigny, Joseph," said I, changing my tone, "I'll tell you what you can do for me. You may take some of my luggage down to the Riviera. I'm expecting a portmanteau to arrive here by rail to-night or to-morrow morning, with plenty of clothing in it. But there are those hold-alls which Finois has carried for so long. I can't travel about with them in railway carriages; at that I draw the line; yet if I sent them by grande vitesse, their contents would be injured or stolen. Take them down to Monte Carlo for me. I shall go there sooner or later, to meet some friends of mine who are motoring, and I shall stop at the Royal."
Joseph's face would have put radium to shame, with the light it generated.
"Monsieur is not joking? He is in earnest?" the poor fellow stammered.
320 The Princess Passesto buy Finois of your patron, and two or three other animals only less admirable than he, setting up in business for yourself, I think I know a man who might advance you the money."
Had there been a little more of the French, or a little less of the Swiss, in honest Joseph's blood, I think that he would have fallen on his knees and rained kisses on my mud-stained boots. The Swiss tipped the balance, luckily for us both, and kept him erect; but there was a suspicious glitter in his deep eyes, and a sudden pinkness of his respectable brown nose, which gave to his "Oh, Monsieur!" more meaning than a volume of protestations.
His hand came out impulsively, then flew back humbly to his side, but I put out mine and grasped it.
"Monsieur, I would die for you," he said.
"I would prefer," I returned, "that you should live--for Innocentina."
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