- CHAPTER XXVIII The World without the Boy
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The World without the Boy
"A . . . somewhat headlong carriage."—R. L. STEVENSON.
THOUGH I had given Molly eyes and ears during her long catechism, I had been vaguely aware, nevertheless, that on leaving the Hôtel de France we had crossed a bridge over the almost dry and pebbly bed of the insignificant Leysse; that we had passed the stately elephants, and a robust marble lady typifying France in the act of receiving on her breast a slender Savoie; that we had caught a last glimpse of the château, and were spinning along a well-kept road, cheek by jowl with the railway to Lyons.
From a high mountain on our left, the silver Cascade de Coux fell vertically, like a white horse's tail; and I smiled to see, as we flashed by, a little house which honoured a valiant foe against whom I had fought, with the name of the Café de Boers.
Up and up mounted our road, cresting green billows of rolling mountain land. We were running towards the boundary of Savoie, into Dauphiné, a country which I had never seen. The Boy and I had talked of entering it together and visiting its Seven Marvels, the very possession of which made it seem in our eyes alluringly mediæval. Had he been my companion still, we would have been travelling some hidden side-path, where doubtless Joseph and | | 334 Innocentina, chaperoned by les animaux, were happily straying at this moment. I could almost hear the donkey-girl's mechanically constant, warning cry "Fanny-anny, Fanny-anny! Souris-ouris!" like a low undertone of accompaniment to the thrum of the motor.
The fancied sound smote me with homesickness, and to coax my mind from the disappointment which still rankled, I asked Jack when he would let me try my hand at driving.
"Not here," said he with a smile, which was instantly explained by an abrupt plunge from the top of a long hill down into a cutting between lichen-scaled rocks, tracing with our "pneus" as we went a series of giddy zig-zags. We had hardly twisted one way when lo! the time had come to twist in the opposite direction, and nowhere had we a radius of more than twenty yards in which to perform our tricks.
"I couldn't have done that as well as you did it, I confess," said I, with becoming modesty.
"It's easy enough when you've got the knack," replied the "Lightning Conductor."
"So, no doubt, is reeling, writhing, and fainting in coils. Motoring down these serpentine hills is like hurling yourself into space, and trusting to Providence."
"So is all of life," said Jack. "A timid man might say the same of getting out of bed in the morning."
"Even I can do the trick," cut in Molly, who was taking a temporary interest in our affairs again. "At least, I can this year, now that chickens are better than they used to be."
"They are looking nice and fat this summer" I judicially remarked.| | 335
"I don't mean that," explained Molly. "But they are more sensible. Last year, before Jack and I were married, chickens were so bad that I used to dream of nothing else in my sleep. I had chicken nightmares. The absurd creatures never would realise when they were well off, but even in the midst of laying a most important egg on one side of the road, our automobile had only to come whizzing along to convince them that salvation depended on getting across to the other. This year they seem to have formed a sort of Chicken Club, a league of defence against motors, and to have started a propaganda."
My imagination tricked me, or this theory of Molly's evoked a faint sound of stifled mirth in the heart of the mysterious mushroom. In haste I turned away, lest I should be suspected of regarding it, and Jack began to pump my memory mercilessly for what it might retain of his driving lessons. Luckily, I had forgotten nothing, and I was able to demonstrate my knowledge by pointing to the various parts of the machine with each glib reference I made.
By-and-bye, we came to a place where a grotto was "much recommended"; but swallows, southward bound, do not stop in their flight for grottos. We darted by, thundered through the humming darkness of Napoleon's tunnel, and flashed out into a startling landscape, as sensational as the country of the "Delectable Mountains" in "Pilgrim's Progress." The cup-like valley was ringed in by mountains of astonishing shapes; it was nature posing for a picture by John Martin. In the fields were dotted characteristic Dauphiné houses, little elfin things with overhanging roofs like caps tied under their chins.| | 336
Soon, we raced into the main street of tiny Les Echelles, whence, in the good old days, fair Princess Beatrice of Savoie went away to wed with the famed Raymond of Provence. We whisked through the village, and down the valley to St. Laurens du Pont, and the entrance to that great rift between mountains which leads to the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse.
As we plunged into the narrow jaws of the superb ravine, a wave of regret for the Boy swept over me. He and I had talked of this day--the day we should see the deserted monastery hidden among its mountains; now it had come, and we were parted.
The society of Jack and Molly and the motor car could make up for many things, but it could not stifle longings for the Little Pal. Besides, magnificent as was Mercédès (the Dragon, not the Mushroom) I felt that Finois and Fanny-anny would have been more in keeping with the place. I was too dispirited to care whether or no my eyes were filled with dust; therefore I had not goggled myself, and I think that Jack must have gathered something of my thoughts from my long face.
"How would you like to get out and walk here, like pilgrims of old?" he asked. "It will be too much for the girls, but Gotteland will drive them up slowly, not to be too far in advance. American girls, you'll find, if you ever make a study of one or more of them, can do everything in the world except--walk. There they have to bow to English girls."
"That's because we've got smaller feet," retorted Molly. "Where an English girl can walk ten miles we can do only five, but it's quite enough. And we have such imaginations that we can sit in this auto- | | 337 mobile and fancy ourselves princesses on ambling palfreys."
It was close to the deserted distillery of the famous liqueur that we parted company, the car, piled with our discarded great-coats, forging ahead up the historic path. The little tramway that used to carry the cases of liqueur to the station at Fourvoirie was nearly obliterated by new-grown grass; the vast buildings stood empty. Never again would the mellow Chartreuse verte and Chartreuse jaune be fragrantly distilled behind the high grey walls, for the makers were banished and scattered far abroad.
We lingered for a moment at the narrow entrance to Le Désert, where the rushing river Guiers foams through the throttled gorge, giving barely room for the road scored along the face of the cliff. It was like a doorway to the lost domain of the monks, and Jack and I agreed that St. Bruno was a man of genius to find such a retreat. A retreat it was literally. St. Bernard had taken his followers to a place where, suffering great hardships, they could best devote their lives to succouring others; but St. Bruno's theory had evidently been that holy men can do more good to their kind by prayer in peaceful sanctuaries than by offering more material aid.
Here,--at the doorway of St. Bruno's long corridor,--the ravine, the old forge, the single-arched bridge flung high across the deep bed of the roaring torrent, had all grouped themselves as if after a consultation upon artistic effect. Once, there had been an actual gate, built alike for defence and for limitation, but there were no traces of it left for the eye of the amateur.
We passed into the defile, and the motor car was | | 338 out of sight long ago. Higher and higher the brown road climbed. The mountains towered close and tall. Great pillared palaces of rock loomed against the sky like castles in the air, incalculably far above the green heads and sloping shoulders of the nearer mountain slopes.
I had thought that green was never so green as in the Valley of Aosta, but here in St. Bruno's corridor there was a new richness of emerald in the green carpet and wall hangings, such as I had not yet known. It was green stamped with living gold,in delicate fleur-de-lis patterns where the sun wove bright threads; and high above was the ceiling of lapis lazuli, in pure unclouded blue.
We heard no sound save the voices of unseen woodcutters crying to each other from mountain slope to mountain slope, the resonant ring of their axes, striking out wild, echoing notes with a fleeting clang of steel on pine, and now and again the sudden thunder-crash of a falling tree, like the roar of a distant avalanche.
By-and-bye we came to the aërial bridge which spans the Guiers Mort, slender and graceful as the arch of a rainbow, and as we gazed down at the far, white water hurling itself in sheets of foam past the detaining rocks, the sharp toot of a horn broke discordantly into the deep-toned music. A motor car sprang round an abrupt curve and flashed by, but not so quickly that I did not recognise among the six occupants the two young Americans of Mont Revard. They passed me as unseeingly as they did the scenery: for they were talking as fast to two pretty girls opposite them in the tonneau, as if the girls had not been talking equally fast to them at the same time. I bore the pair a grudge, and the sight | | 339 of them brought back the consciousness of my injury.
St. Bruno, fortunate in many ways, was a lucky saint to have so beautiful a bridge named after him. And as we climbed the brown road--moist with tears wept by the mountains for the banished monks--it seemed to us that the scenery was always leading up to him, as a preface leads up to the first chapter of a book. We went through tunnels as a thread goes through the eye of a needle; we wound round intricate turns of the road; we came upon pinnacle rocks; and then, at last, when we least expected the climax of our journey, we dropped into a great green basin, rimmed with soaring crags. In the midst stood an enormous building, a vast conglomeration of pointed, dove-grey roofs and dun-coloured walls, a city of slate and stone spread over acres of ground and seeming a part of the impressive yet strangely peaceful wilderness.
Looking at the vast structure, I was ready to believe that St. Bruno had waved his staff in the shadow of a rough-hewn mountain, saying: "Let there be a monastery," and suddenly, there was a monastery; but our motor, quivering with nervous energy before a door in the high wall, snatched me back to practicalities.
Molly, leaning quietly back in the tonneau beside the Perpetual Mushroom, saw us coming from afar off, and waved a hand of absurd American smallness. By the time we were within speaking distance, she was out of the car and coming toward us.
"We were so hungry, that we lunched while we waited," she explained,"so now you and Jack can go to the hôtellerie and have something quickly. We'll walk in the woods until you come back, and then, as | | 340 Mercédès doesn't seem to mind, we'll all go into the monastery together."
It was not until the door of the Grande Chartreuse had opened to receive us, and closed again behind our backs, shutting us into a large empty quadrangle, that the Spirit of the place took us by the hand.
Over the steep grey roofs (pointed like monkish hands with finger-tips joined in prayer) we gazed up at mountain peaks, grey and green, and pointing also to a heaven which seemed strangely near.
The spell of the vast, the stupendous silence fell upon us. Somehow, Molly drifted from me to Jack as we walked noiselessly on, led by a silent guide, as if she craved the warm comfort of a loved presence, and for a few brief moments the veiled Mercédès paced step for step beside me. But we did not speak to each other.
What a tragic, tremendous silence it was! Yes, I wanted the Boy. I should have been glad of the touch of his little shoulder. Thinking of him thus, by some accident the sleeve of Mercédès coat brushed against mine. Still, not a word from either, of us. I did not even say, "I beg your pardon," for that would have been to obtrude my voice upon the thousand voices of the Silence; dead voices, living voices; voices of passionate protest, voices of heart-breaking homesickness, of aching grief and longing, never to be assuaged. Poor monks--poor banished men who had loved their home, and belonged to it, as the clasping tendrils of old, old ivy belong to the oak.
How dared we come here into this place from which they had been driven, we aliens? I had not known it would grip me so by the throat. How full | | 341 the emptiness was!--as full to my mind as the air is of motes when a bar of sunshine reveals them.
It was the Palace of Sleep, lost in the mountain forests, but here there was no hope coming with the springing footsteps of a blithe young prince. The sleepers in this palace could not be waked by a wish, or a magic kiss, for they were ghosts, ghosts everywhere--in the great kitchen, with all its huge polished utensils ready for the meal which would never be cooked, and its neat plain dishes on shelved trays, waiting to be carried to the grilles of the solitaires; in the Brothers' refectory where the egg-cups were ranged on long, narrow tables, for the meal never to be eaten, where the chair of the Reader was waiting to receive him; in the Fathers' refectory next door; in the dusky corridors, their ends lost in shadow, where only the sad echoes and the running water of the unseen spring were awake; in the chapels; in the cemetery with its old carved stones and humbler wooden crosses; and most of all in the wonderful cells (which were not cells, but mansions), and in their high-walled gardens, the most private of all imaginable spots on earth.
Wandering on and on, alone now, I felt myself the saddest man in a twilight world. Why, I could not have put into words. Had the brotherhood still peopled the monastery, I should have yearned to join them, partly because I was sad, and partly because the so-called cells were the most charming dwelling-places I had seen. Each comprised a two-storied house in miniature, and each had its garden, shut irrevocably away from sight or sound of any other. Into one of these solitary abodes I went alone, and closed the door upon myself and the ghosts. In fancy I was one of the order, | | 342 in retreat for a week, my only means of communication with the outer world of the monastery (save for midnight prayers in the dim chapel) little grille. There was my workshop, where I carved wood; there the narrow staircase leading steeply up to my wainscoted bedroom, my study, and my oratory, with windows looking down into the leafy square of garden, planted by my on hands. Standing at one of those windows, I knew the anguish of parting and loss which had torn the heart of the last occupant, before he walked out of the monastery between double lines of Chasseurs Alpins.
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