AT A WINTER'S FIRE
Author of The Lake of Wine, etc.
All except three of the following Tales have already appeared in English or American Magazines. The best thanks of the author are due to the Editors of the "Cornhill," "Macmillan's," "Lippincott's" and "Pearson's" Magazines, and to the Editor of the "Sketch," for permission to reprint such of the stories as have been published in their pages.
THE MOON STRICKEN
JACK AND JILL
THE VANISHING HOUSE
WILLIAM TYRWHITT'S "COPY"
A LAZY ROMANCE
AN EDDY ON THE FLOOR
THE BLACK REAPER
A VOICE FROM THE PIT
THE MOON STRICKEN
It so fell that one dark evening in the month of June I was belated in the Bernese Oberland. Dusk overtook me toiling along the great Chamounix Road, and in the heart of a most desolate gorge, whose towering snow-flung walls seemed—as the day sucked inwards to a point secret as a leech's mouth—to close about me like a monstrous amphitheatre of ghosts. The rutted road, dipping and climbing toilfully against the shouldering of great tumbled boulders, or winning for itself but narrow foothold over slippery ridges, was thawed clear of snow; but the cold soft peril yet lay upon its flanks thick enough for a wintry plunge of ten feet, or may be fifty where the edge of the causeway fell over to the lower furrows of the ravine. It was a matter of policy to go with caution, and a thing of some moment to hear the thud and splintering of little distant icefalls about one in the darkness. Now and again a cold arrow of wind would sing down from the frosty peaks above or jerk with a squiggle of laughter among the fallen slabs in the valley. And these were the only voices to prick me on through a dreariness lonely as death.
I knew the road, but not its night terrors. Passing along it some days before in the glory of sunshine, broad paddocks and islands of green had comforted the shattered white ruin of the place, and I had traversed it merely as a magnificent episode in the indifferent history of my life. Now, as it seemed, I became one with it—an awful waif of solemnity, a thing apart from mankind and its warm intercourse and ruddy inn doors, a spectral anomaly, whose austere epitaph was once writ upon the snow coating some fallen slab of those glimmering about me. I thought the whole gorge smelt of tombs, like the vault of a cathedral. I thought, in the incomprehensible low moaning sound that ever and again seemed to eddy about me when the wind had swooped and passed, that I recognised the forlorn voices of brother spirits long since dead and forgotten of the world.
Suddenly I felt the sweat cold under the knapsack that swung upon my back; stopped, faced about and became human again. Ridge over ridge to my right the mountain summits fell away against a fathomless sky; and topping the furthermost was a little paring of silver light, the coronet of the rising moon. But the glory of the full orb was in the retrospect; for, closing the savage vista of the ravine, stood up far away a cluster of jagged pinnacles—opal, translucent, lustrous as the peaks of icebergs that are the frozen music of the sea.
It was the toothed summit of the Aiguille Verte, now prosaically bathed in the light of the full moon; but to me, looking from that grim and passionless hollow, it stood for the white hand of God lifted in menace to the evil spirits of the glen.
I drank my fill of the good sight, and then turned me to my tramp again with a freshness in my throat as though it had gulped a glass of champagne. Presently I knew myself descending, leaving, as I felt rather than saw, the stark horror of the gorge and its glimmering snow patches above me. Puffs of a warmer air purred past my face with little friendly sighs of welcome, and the hum of a far-off torrent struck like a wedge into the indurated fibre of the night. As I dropped, however, the mountain heads grew up against the moon, and withheld the comfort of her radiance; and it was not until the whimper of the torrent had quickened about me to a plunging roar, and my foot was on the striding bridge that took its waters at a step, that her light broke through a topmost cleft in the hills, and made glory of the leaping thunder that crashed beneath my feet.
Thereafter all was peace. The road led downwards into a broadening valley, where the smell of flowers came about me, and the mountain walls withdrew and were no longer overwhelming. The slope eased off, dipping and rising no more than a ground swell; and by-and-by I was on a level track that ran straight as a stretched ribbon and was reasonable to my tired feet.
Now the first dusky chalets of the hamlet of Bel-Oiseau straggled towards me, and it was music in my ears to hear the cattle blow and rattle in their stalls under the sleeping lofts as I passed outside in the moonlight. Five minutes more, and the great zinc onion on the spire of the church glistened towards me, and I was in the heart of the silent village.
From the deep green shadow cast by the graveyard wall, heavily buttressed against avalanches, a form wriggled out into the moonlight and fell with a dusty thud at my feet, mowing and chopping at the air with its aimless claws. I started back with a sudden jerk of my pulses. The thing was horrible by reason of its inarticulate voice, which issued from the shapeless folds of its writhings like the wet gutturizing of a back-broken horse. Instinct with repulsion, I stood a moment dismayed, when light flashed from an open doorway a dozen yards further down the street, and a woman ran across to the prostrate form.
"Up, graceless one!" she cried; "and carry thy seven devils within doors!"
The figure gathered itself together at her voice, and stood in an angle of the buttresses quaking and shielding its eyes with two gaunt arms.
"Can I not exchange a word with Mere Pettit," scolded the woman, "but thou must sneak from behind my back on thy crazed moon-hunting?"
"Pity, pity," moaned the figure; and then the woman noticed me, and dropped a curtsy.
"Pardon," she said; "but he has been affronting Monsieur with his antics?"
"He is stricken, Madame?"
"Ah, yes, Monsieur. Holy Mother, but how stricken!"
"It is sad."
"Monsieur knows not how sad. It is so always, but most a great deal when the moon is full. He was a good lad once."
Monsieur puts his hand in his pocket. Madame hears the clink of coin and touches the enclosed fingers with her own delicately. Monsieur withdraws his hand empty.
"Monsieur has the courage of a gentleman. Come, Camille, little fool! a sweet good-night to Monsieur."
"Stay, Madame. I have walked far and am weary. Is there an hotel in Bel-Oiseau?"
"Monsieur is jesting. We are but a hundred of poor chalets."
"An auberge, then—a cabaret—anything?"
"Les Trois Chevres. It is not for such as you."
"Is it, then, that I must toil onwards to Chatelard?"
"Monsieur does not know? The Hotel Royal was burned to the walls six months since."
"It follows that I must lie in the fields."
Madame hesitates, ponders, and makes up her mind.
"I keep Monsieur talking, and the night wind is sharp from the snow. It is ill for a heated skin, and one should be indoors. I have a bedroom that is at Monsieur's disposition, if Monsieur will condescend?"
Monsieur will condescend. Monsieur would condescend to a loft and a truss of straw, in default of the neat little chilly chamber that is allotted him, so sick are his very limbs with long tramping, and so uninviting figures the further stretch in the moonlight to Chatelard, with its burnt-out carcase of an hotel.
This is how I came to quarter myself on Madame Barbiere and her idiot son, and how I ultimately learned from the lips of the latter the strange story of his own immediate fall from reason and the dear light of intellect.
* * * * *
By day Camille Barbiere proved to be a young man, some five and twenty years of age, of a handsome and impressive exterior. His dark hair lay close about his well-shaped head; his features were regular and cut bold as an Etruscan cameo; his limbs were elastic and moulded into the supple finish of one whose life has not been set upon level roads. At a speculative distance he appeared a straight specimen of a Burgundian youth—sinewy, clean-formed, and graceful, though slender to gauntness; and it was only on nearer contact that one marvelled to see the soul die out of him, as a face set in the shadow of leafage resolves itself into some accident of twisted branches as one approaches the billowing tree that presented it.
The soul of Camille, the idiot, had warped long after its earthly tabernacle had grown firm and fair to look upon. Cause and effect were not one from birth in him; and the result was a most wistful expression, as though the lost intellect were for ever struggling and failing to recall its ancient mastery. Mostly he was a gentle young man, noteworthy for nothing but the uncomplaining patience with which he daily observed the monotonous routine of simple duties that were now all-sufficient for the poor life that had "crept so long on a broken wing." He milked the big, red, barrel-bodied cow, and churned industriously for butter; he kept the little vegetable garden in order and nursed the Savoys into fatness like plumping babies; he drove the goats to pasture on the mountain slopes, and all day sat among the rhododendrons, the forgotten soul behind his eyes conning the dead language of fate, as a foreigner vainly interrogates the abstruse complexity of an idiom.
By-and-by I made it an irregular habit to accompany him on these shepherdings; to join him in his simple midday meal of sour brown bread and goat-milk cheese; to talk with him desultorily, and study him the while, inasmuch as he wakened an interest in me that was full of speculation. For his was not an imbecility either hereditary or constitutional. From the first there had appeared to me something abnormal in it—a suspension of intelligence only, a frost-bite in the brain that presently some April breath of memory might thaw out. This was not merely conjectural, of course. I had the story of his mental collapse from his mother in the early days of my sojourn in Bel-Oiseau; for it came to pass that a fitful caprice induced me to prolong my stay in the swart little village far into the gracious Swiss summer.
The "story" I have called it; but it was none. He was out on the hills one moonlight night, and came home in the early morning mad. That was all.
This had happened some eight years before, when he was a lad of seventeen—a strong, beautiful lad, his mother told me; and with a dreamy "poet's corner" in his brain, she added, but in her own better way of putting it. She had no shame that her shepherd should be an Endymion. In Switzerland they still look upon Nature as a respectable pursuit for a young man.
Well, they had thought him possessed of a devil; and his father had at first sought to exorcise it with a chamois-hide thong, as Munchausen flogged the black fox out of his skin. But the counter-irritant failed of its purpose. The devil clung deep, and rent poor Camille with periodic convulsions of insanity.
It was noted that his derangement waxed and waned with the monthly moon; that it assumed a virulent character with the passing of the second quarter, and culminated, as the orb reached its fulness, in a species of delirium, during which it was necessary to carefully watch him; that it diminished with the lessening crescent until it fell away into a quiet abeyance of faculties that was but a step apart from the normal intelligence of his kind. At his worst he was a stricken madman acutely sensitive to impressions; at his best an inoffensive peasant who said nothing foolish and nothing wise.
When he was twenty, his father died, and Camille and his mother had to make out existence in company.
Now, the veil, in my first knowledge of him, was never rent; yet occasionally it seemed to me to gape in a manner that let a little momentary finger of light through, in the flashing of which a soul kindled and shut in his eyes, like a hard-dying spark in ashes. I wished to know what gave life to the spark, and I set to pondering the problem.
"He was not always thus?" I would say to Madame Barbiere.
"But no, Monsieur, truly. This place—bah! we are here imbeciles all to the great world, without doubt; but Camille!—he was by nature of those who make the history of cities—a rose in the wilderness. Monsieur smiles?"
"By no means. A scholar, Madame?"
"A scholar of nature, Monsieur; a dreamer of dreams such as they become who walk much with the spirits on the lonely mountains."
"Torrents, and avalanches, and the good material forces of nature, Madame means."
"Ah! Monsieur may talk, but he knows. He has heard the foehn sweep down from the hills and spin the great stones off the house-roofs. And one may look and see nothing, yet the stones go. It is the wind that runs before the avalanche that snaps the pine trees; and the wind is the spirit that calls down the great snow-slips."
"But how may Madame who sees nothing; know then a spirit to be abroad?"
"My faith; one may know one's foot is on the wild mint without shifting one's sole to look."
"Madame will pardon me. No doubt also one may know a spirit by the smell of sulphur?"
"Monsieur is a sceptic. It comes with the knowledge of cities. There are even such in little Bel-Oiseau, since the evil time when they took to engrossing the contracts of good citizens on the skins of the poor jew-beards that give us flesh and milk. It is horrible as the Tannery of Meudon. In my young days, Monsieur, such agreements were inscribed upon wood."
"Quite so, Madame, and entirely to the point. Also one may see from whom Camille inherited his wandering propensities. But for his fall—it was always unaccountable?"
"Monsieur, as one trips on the edge of a crevasse and disappears. His soul dropped into the frozen cleft that one cannot fathom."
"Madame will forgive my curiosity."
"But surely. There was no dark secret in my Camille's life. If the little head held pictures beyond the ken of us simple women, the angels painted them of a certainty. Moreover, it is that I willingly recount this grief to the wise friend that may know a solution."
"At least the little-wise can seek for one."
"Ah, if Monsieur would only find the remedy!"
"It is in the hands of fate."
Madame crossed herself.
"Of the Bon Dieu, Monsieur."
At another time Madame Barbiere said:—
"It was in such a parched summer as this threatens to be that my Camille came home in the mists of the morning possessed. He was often out on the sweet hills all night—that was nothing. It had been a full moon, and the whiteness of it was on his face like leprosy, but his hands were hot with fever. Ah, the dreadful summer! The milk turned sour in the cows' udders and the tufts of the stone pines on the mountains fell into ashes like Dead Sea fruit. The springs were dried, and the great cascade of Buet fell to half its volume."
"This cascade; I have never seen it. Is it in the neighbourhood?"
"Of a surety. Monsieur must have passed the rocky ravine that vomits the torrent, on his way hither."
"I remember. I will explore it. Camille shall be my guide."
Madame shrugged her plump shoulders.
"Who may say? The ways of the afflicted are not our ways. Only I know that Camille will never drive his flock to pasture near the lip of that dark valley."
"That is strange. Can the place have associations for him connected with his malady?"
"It is possible. Only the good God knows."
But I was to know later on, with a little reeling of the reason also.
* * * * *
"Camille, I want to see the Cascade de Buet."
The hunted eyes of the stricken looked into mine with a piercing glance of fear.
"Monsieur must not," he said, in a low voice.
"And why not?"
"The waters are bad—bad—haunted!"
"I fear no ghosts. Wilt thou show me the way, Camille?"
"I!" The idiot fell upon the grass with a sort of gobbling cry. I thought it the prelude to a fit of some sort, and was stepping towards him, when he rose to his feet, waved me off and hurried away down the slope homewards.
Here was food for reflection, which I mumbled in secret.
A day or two afterwards I joined Camille at midday on the heights where he was pasturing his flocks. He had shifted his ground a little distance westwards, and I could not find him at once. At last I spied him, his back to a rock, his hand dabbled for coolness in a little runnel that trickled at his side. He looked up and greeted me with a smile. He had conceived an affection for me, this poor lost soul.
"It will go soon," he said, referring to the miniature streamlet. "It is safe in the woods; but to-morrow or next day the sun will lap it up ere it can reach the skirt of the shadow above there. A farewell kiss to you, little stream!"
He bent and sipped a mouthful of the clear water. He was in a more reasonable state than he had shown for long, though it was now close on the moon's final quarter, a period that should have marked a more general tenor of placidity in him. The summer solstice, was, however, at hand, and the weather sultry to a degree—as it had been, I did not fail to remember, the year of his seizure.
"Camille," I said, "why to-day hast thou shifted thy ground a little in the direction of the Buet ravine?"
He sat up at once, with a curious, eager look in his face.
"Monsieur has asked it," he said. "It was to impel Monsieur to ask it that I moved. Does Monsieur seek a guide?"
"Wilt thou lead me, Camille?"
"Monsieur, last night I dreamed and one came to me. Was it my father? I know not, I know not. But he put my forehead to his breast, and the evil left it, and I remembered without terror. 'Reveal the secret to the stranger,' he said; 'that he may share thy burden and comfort thee; for he is strong where thou art weak, and the vision shall not scare him.' Monsieur, wilt thou come?"
He leaped to his feet, and I to mine.
"Lead on, Camille. I follow."
He called to the leader of his flock: "Petitjean! stray not, my little one. I shall be back sooner than the daisies close." Then he turned to me again. I noticed a pallid, desperate look in his face, as though he were strung to great effort; but it was the face of a mindless one still.
"Do you not fear?" he said, in a whisper; and the apple in his throat seemed all choking core.
"I fear nothing," I answered with a smile; yet the still sombreness of the woods found a little tremor in my breast.
"It is good," he answered, regarding me. "The angel spoke truth. Follow, Monsieur."
He went off through the trees of a sudden, and I had much ado to keep pace with him. He ran as one urged on by a sure sense of doom, looking neither to right nor left. His mountain instincts had remained with him when memory itself had closed around like a fog, leaving him face to face and isolated with his one unconfessed point of terror. Swiftly we made our way, ever slightly climbing, along the rugged hillside, and soon broke into country very wild and dismal. The pastoral character of the scene lessened and altogether disappeared. The trees grew matted and grotesquely gnarled, huddling together in menacing battalions—save where some plunging rock had burst like a shell, forcing a clearing and strewing the black moss with a jagged wreck of splinters. Here no flowers crept for warmth, no sentinel marmot turned his little scut with a whistle of alarm to vanish like a red shadow. All was melancholy and silence and the massed defiance of ever-impending ruin. Storm, and avalanche, and the bitter snap of frost had wrought their havoc year by year, till an uncrippled branch was a rare distinction. The very saplings, of stunted growth, bore the air of thieves reared in a rookery of crime.
We strode with difficulty in an inhuman twilight through this great dark quickset of Nature, and had paused a moment where the thronging trunks thinned somewhat, when a little mouthing moan came towards us on the crest of a ripple of wind. My companion stopped on the instant, and clutched my arm, his face twisting with panic.
"The Cascade, Monsieur!" he shook out in a terrified whisper.
"Courage, my friend! It is that we come to seek."
"Ah! My God, yes—it is that! I dare not—I dare not!"
He drew back livid with fear, but I urged him on.
"Remember the dream, Camille!" I cried.
"Yes, yes—it was good. Help me, Monsieur, and I will try—yes, I will try!"
I drew his arm within mine, and together we stumbled on. The undergrowth grew denser and more fantastic; the murmur filled out, increased and resolved itself into a sound of falling water that ever took shape, and volume, and depth, till its crash shook the ground at our feet. Then in a moment a white blaze of sky came at us through the trunks, and we burst through the fringe of the wood to find ourselves facing the opposite side of a long cleft in the mountain and the blade's edge of a roaring cataract.
It shot out over the lip of the fall, twenty feet above us, in a curve like a scimitar, passed in one sheet the spot where we stood, and dived into a sunless pool thirty feet below with a thunderous boom. What it may have been in full phases of the stream, I know not; yet even now it was sufficiently magnificent to give pause to a dying soul eager to shake off the restless horror of the world. The flat of its broad blade divided the lofty black walls of a deep and savage ravine, on whose jagged shelves some starved clumps of rhododendron shook in the wind of the torrent. Far down the narrow gully we could see the passion of water tossing, champed white with the ravening of its jaws, until it took a bend of the cliffs at a leap and rushed from sight.
We stood upon a little platform of coarse grass and bramble, whose fringe dipped and nodded fitfully as the sprinkle caught it. Beyond, the sliding sheet of water looked like a great strap of steel, reeled ceaselessly off a whirling drum pivoted between the hills. The midday sun shot like a piston down the shaft of the valley, painting purple spears and angles behind its abutting rocks, and hitting full upon the upper curve of the fall; but half-way down the cataract slipped into shadow.
My brain sickened with the endless gliding and turmoil of descent, and I turned aside to speak to my companion. He was kneeling upon the grass, his eyes fixed and staring, his white lips mumbling some crippled memory of a prayer. He started and cowered down as I touched him on the shoulder.
"I cannot go, Monsieur; I shall die!"
"What next, Camille? I will go alone,"
"My God, Monsieur! the cave under the fall! It is there the horror is."
He pointed to a little gap in the fringing bushes with shaking finger. I stole gingerly in the direction he indicated. With every step I took the awful fascination of the descending water increased upon me. It seemed hideous and abnormal to stand mid-way against a perpendicularly-rushing torrent. Above or below the effect would have been different; but here, to look up was to feel one's feet dragging towards the unseen—to look down and pass from vision of the lip of the fall was to become the waif of a force that was unaccountable.
I had a battle with my nerves, and triumphed. As I approached the opening in the brambles I became conscious of a certain relief. At a little distance the cataract had seemed to actually wash in its descent the edge of the platform. Now I found it to be further away than I had imagined, the ground dropping in a sharp slope to a sort of rocky buttress which lay obliquely on the slant of the ravine, and was the true margin of the torrent. Before I essayed the descent, I glanced back at my companion. He was kneeling where I had left him, his hands pressed to his face, his features hidden; but looking back once again, when I had with infinite caution accomplished the downward climb, I saw that he had crept to the edge of the slope, and was watching me with wide, terrified eyes. I waved my hand to him and turned to the wonderful vision of water that now passed almost within reach of my arm. I stood near the point where the whole glassy breadth glided at once from sunlight into shadow. It fell silently, without a break, for only its feet far below trod the thunder.
Now, as I peered about, I noticed a little cleft in the rocky margin, a minute's climb above me. I was attracted to this by an appearance of smoke or steam that incessantly emerged from it, as though some witch's caldron were simmering alongside the fall. Spray it might be, or the condensing of water splashed on the granite; but of this I might not be sure. Therefore I determined to investigate, and straightway began climbing the rocks—with my heart in my mouth, it must be confessed, for the foothold was undesirable and the way perilous. And all the time I was conscious that the white face of Camille watched me from above. As I reached the cleft I fancied I heard a queer sort of gasping sob issue from his lips, but to this I could give no heed in the sudden wonder that broke upon me. For, lo! it appeared that the cleft led straight to a narrow platform or ledge of rock right underneath the fall itself, but extending how far I could not see, by reason of the steam that filled the passage, and for which I was unable to account. Footing it carefully and groping my way, I set step in the little water-curtained chamber and advanced a pace or two. Suddenly, light grew about me, and a beautiful rose of fire appeared on the wall of the passage in the midst of what seemed a vitrified scoop in the rock.
Marvelling, I put out my hand to touch it, and fell back on the narrow floor with a scream of anguish. An inch farther, and these lines had not been written. As it was, the fall caught me by the fingers with the suck of a cat-fish, and it was only a gigantic wrench that saved me from slipping off the ledge. The jerk brought my head against the rock with a stunning blow, and for some moments I lay dizzy and confused, daring hardly to breathe, and conscious only of a burning and blistering agony in my right hand.
At length I summoned courage to gather my limbs together and crawl out the way I had entered. The distance was but a few paces, yet to traverse these seemed an interminable nightmare of swaying and stumbling. I know only one other occasion upon which the liberal atmosphere of the open earth seemed sweeter to my senses when I reached it than it did on this.
I tumbled somehow through the cleft, and sat down, shaking, upon the grass of the slope beyond; but, happening to throw myself backwards in the reeling faintness induced by my fright and the pain of my head, my eyes encountered a sight that woke me at once to full activity.
Balanced upon the very verge of the slope, his face and neck craned forward, his jaw dropped, a sick, tranced look upon his features, stood Camille. I saw him topple, and shouted to him; but before my voice was well out, he swayed, collapsed, and came down with a running thud that shook the ground. Once he wheeled over, like a shot rabbit, and, bounding thwack with his head against a flat boulder not a dozen yards from me, lay stunned and motionless.
I scrambled to him, quaking all over. His breath came quick, and a spirt of blood jerked from a sliced cut in his forehead at every pump of his heart.
I kicked out a wad of cool moist turf, and clapped it in a pad over the wound, my handkerchief under. For his body, he was shaken and bruised, but otherwise not seriously hurt.
Presently he came to himself; to himself in the best sense of the word—for Camille was sane.
I have no explanation to offer. Only I know that, as a fall will set a long-stopped watch pulsing again, the blow here seemed to have restored the misplaced intellect to its normal balance.
When he woke, there was a new soft light of sanity in his eyes that was pathetic in the extreme.
"Monsieur," he whispered, "the terror has passed."
"God be thanked! Camille," I answered, much moved.
He jerked his poor battered head in reverence.
"A little while," he said, "and I shall know. The punishment was just."
"What punishment, my poor Camille?"
"Hush! The cloud has rolled away. I stand naked before le bon Dieu. Monsieur, lift me up; I am strong."
I winced as I complied. The palm of my hand was scorched and blistered in a dozen places. He noticed at once, and kissed and fondled the wounded limb as softly as a woman might.
"Ah, the poor hand!" he murmured. "Monsieur has touched the disc of fire."
"Camille," I whispered, "what is it?"
"Monsieur shall know—ah! yes, he shall know; but not now. Monsieur, my mother."
"Thou art right, good son."
I bound up his bruised forehead and my own burnt hand as well as I was able, and helped him to his feet. He stood upon them staggering; but in a minute could essay to stumble on the homeward journey with assistance. It was a long and toilsome progress; but in time we accomplished it. Often we had to sit down in the blasted woods and rest awhile; often moisten our parched mouths at the runnels of snow-water that thridded the undergrowth. The shadows were slanting eastwards as we reached the clearing we had quitted some hours earlier, and the goats had disappeared. Petitjean was leading his charges homewards in default of a human commander, and presently we overtook them browsingly loitering and desirous of definite instructions.
I pass over Camille's meeting with his mother, and the wonder, and fear, and pity of it all. Our hurts were attended to, and the battery of questions met with the best armour of tact at command. For myself, I said that I had scorched my hand against a red-hot rock, which was strictly true; for Camille, that it were wisest to take no early advantage of the reason that God had restored to him. She was voluble, tearful, half-hysterical with joy and the ecstasy of gratitude.
"That a blow should effect the marvel! Monsieur, but it passes comprehension."
All night long I heard her stirring and sobbing softly outside his door, for I slept little, owing to pain and the wonder in my mind. But towards morning I dozed, and my dreams were feverish and full of terror.
The next day Camille kept his bed and I my room. By this I at least escaped the first onset of local curiosity, for the villagers naturally made of Camille's restoration a nine-days' wonder. But towards evening Madame Barbiere brought a message from him that he would like to see Monsieur alone, if Monsieur would condescend to visit him in his room. I went at once, and found him, as Haydon found Keats, lying in a white bed, hectic, and on his back. He greeted me with a smile peculiarly sweet and restful.
"Does Monsieur wish to know?" he said in a low voice.
"If it will not hurt thee, Camille."
"Not now—not now; the good God has made me sound. I remember, and am not terrified."
I closed the door and took a seat by his bedside. There, with my hand shading my eyes from the level glory of sunset that flamed into the room, I listened to the strange tale of Camille's seizure.
* * * * *
"Once, Monsieur, I lived in myself and was exultant with a loneliness of fancied knowledge. My youth was my excuse; but God could not pardon me all. I read where I could find books, and chance put an evil choice in my way, for I learned to sneer at His name, His heaven, His hell. Each man has his god in self-will, I thought in my pride, and through it alone he accepts the responsibility of life and death. He is his own curse or blessing here and hereafter, inheriting no sin and earning no doom but such as he himself inflicts upon himself. I interpret this from the world about me, and knowing it, I have no fear and own no tyrant but my own passions. Monsieur, it was through fear the most terrible that God asserted Himself to me."
The light was fading in the west, and a lance of shadow fell upon the white bed, as though the hushed day were putting a finger to its lips as it withdrew.
"I was no coward then, Monsieur—that at least I may say. I lived among the mountains, and on their ledges the feet of my own goats were not surer. Often, in summer, I spent the night among the woods and hills, reading in them the story of the ages, and exploring, exploring till my feet were wearier than my brain. Strangers came from far to see the great cascade; but none but I—and you, too, Monsieur, now—know the track through the thicket that leads to the cave under the waters. I found it by chance, and, like you, was scorched by the fire, though not badly."
"Monsieur, I will tell you a wonderful thing. The falling waters there make a monstrous burning glass, when the hot sun is upon them, which has melted the rock behind like wax."
"Can that be so?"
"It is true—dear Jesus, I have fearful reason to know it."
He half rose on his elbow, his face, crossed by the bandage, grey as stone in the gathering dusk. Hereafter he spoke in an awed whisper.
"When the knowledge broke upon me, I grew great to myself in the possession of a wonderful secret. Day after day I visited the cave and examined this phenomenon—and yet another more marvellous in its connection with the first. The huge lens was a simple accident of curved rocks and convex water, planed smooth as crystal. In other than a droughty summer it would probably not exist; the spouting torrent would overwhelm it—but I know not. Was not this astonishing enough? Yet Nature had worked a second miracle to mock in anticipation the self-sufficient plagiarism of little man. I noticed that the rays of the sun concentrated in the lens only during the half-hour of the orb's apparent crossing of the ravine. Then the light smote upon a strange curved little fan of water, that spouted from a high crevice at the mouth of the shallow vitrified tunnel, and devoured it, and played upon the rocks behind, that hissed and sputtered like pitch, and the place was blind with steam. But when the tooth of fire was withdrawn, the tiny inner cascade fell again and wrought coolness with its sprinkling.
"I did not discover this all at once, for at first fright took me, and it was enough to watch for the moment of the light's appearance and then flee with a little laughter. But one day I ventured back into the cave after the sun had crossed the valley, and the steam had died away, and the rock cooled behind the miniature cascade.
"I looked through the lens, and it seemed full of a great white light that blazed into my eyes, so that I fell back through the inner fan of water and was well soused by it; but my sight presently recovering, I stood forward in the scoop of rock admiring the dainty hollow curve the fan took in its fall. By-and-by I became aware that I was looking out through a smaller lens upon the great one, and that strange whirling mists seemed to be sweeping across a huge disc, within touch of my hand almost.
"It was long before I grasped the meaning of this; but, in a flash, it came upon me. The great lens formed the object glass, the small, the eyeglass, of a natural telescope of tremendous power, that drew the high summer clouds down within seeming touch and opened out the heavens before my staring eyes.
"Monsieur, when this dawned upon me I was wild. That so astonishing a discovery should have been reserved for a poor ignorant Swiss peasant filled me with pride wicked in proportion with its absence of gratitude to the mighty dispenser of good. I came even to think my individuality part of the wonder and necessary to its existence. 'Were it not for my courage and enterprise,' I cried, 'this phenomenon would have remained a secret of the Nature that gave birth to it. She yields her treasures to such only as fear not.'
"I had read in a book of Huyghens, Guinand, Newton, Herschel—the great high-priests of science who had striven through patient years to read the hieroglyphics of the heavens. 'The wise imbeciles,' I thought. 'They toiled and died, and Nature held no mirror up to them. For me, the poor Camille, she has worked in secret while they grew old and passed unsatisfied.'
"Brilliant projects of astronomy whirled in my brain. The evening of my last discovery I remained out on the hills, and entered the cave as it grew dusk. A feeling of awe surged in me as dark fell over the valley, and the first stars glistened faintly. I dipped under the fan of water and took my stand in the hollow behind it. There was no moon, but my telescope was inclined, as it were, at a generous angle, and a section of the firmament was open before me. My heart beat fast as I looked through the lens.
"Shall I tell you what I saw then and many nights after? Rings and crosses in the heavens of golden mist, spangled, as it seemed, with jewels; stars as big as cart-wheels, twinkling points no longer, but round, like great bosses of molten fire; things shadowy, luminous, of strange colours and stranger forms, that seemed to brush the waters as they passed, but were in reality vast distances away.
"Sometimes the thrust of wind up the ravine would produce a tremulous motion in the image at the focus of the mirror; but this was seldom. For the most part the wonderful lenses presented a steady curvature, not flawless, but of magnificent capacity.
"Now it flashed upon me that, when the moon was at the full, she would top the valley in the direct path of my telescope's range of view. At the thought I grew exultant. I—I, little Camille, should first read aright the history of this strange satellite. The instrument that could give shape to the stars would interpret to me the composition of that lonely orb as clearly as though I stood upon her surface.
"As the time of her fulness drew near I grew feverish with excitement. I was sickening, as it were, to my madness, for never more should I look upon her willingly, with eyes either speculative or insane."
At this point Camille broke off for a little space, and lay back on his pillow. When he spoke again it was out of the darkness, with his face turned to the wall.
"Monsieur, I cannot dwell upon it—I must hasten. We have no right to peer beyond the boundary God has drawn for us. I saw His hell—I saw His hell, I tell you. It is peopled with the damned—silent, horrible, distorted in the midst of ashes and desolation. It was a memory that, like the snake of Aaron, devoured all others till yesterday—till yesterday, by Christ's mercy."
* * * * *
It seemed to me, as the days wore on, that Camille had but recovered his reason at the expense of his life; that the long rest deemed necessary for him after his bitter period of brain exhaustion might in the end prove an everlasting one. Possibly the blow to his head had, in expelling the seven devils, wounded beyond cure the vital function that had fostered them. He lay white, patient, and sweet-tempered to all, but moved by no inclination to rise and re-assume the many-coloured garment of life.
His description of the dreadful desert in the sky I looked upon, merely, as an abiding memory of the brain phantasm that had finally overthrown a reason, already tottering under the tremendous excitement induced by his discovery of the lenses, and the magnified images they had presented to him. That there was truth in the asserted fact of the existence of these, my own experience convinced me; and curiosity as to this alone impelled me to the determination of investigating further, when my hand should be sufficiently recovered to act as no hindrance to me in forcing my way once more through the dense woods that bounded the waterfall. Moreover, the dispassionate enquiry of a mind less sensitive to impressions might, in the result, do more towards restoring the warped imagination of my friend to its normal state than any amount of spoken scepticism.
To Camille I said nothing of my resolve; but waited on, chafing at the slow healing of my wounds. In the meantime the period of the full moon approached, and I decided, at whatever cost, to make the venture on the evening she topped her orbit, if circumstances at the worst should prevent my doing so sooner—and thus it turned out.
On the eve of my enterprise, the first fair spring of rain in a drought of two months fell, to my disappointment, among the hills; for I feared an increase of the torrent and the effacement of the mighty lens. I set off, however, on the afternoon of the following day, in hot sunshine, mentally prognosticating a favourable termination to my expedition, and telling Madame Barbiere not to expect me back till late.
In leisurely fashion I made my way along the track we had previously traversed, risking no divergence through overhaste, and carefully examining all landmarks before deciding on any direction. Thus slowly proceeding, I had the good fortune to come within sound of the cataract as the sun was sinking behind the mountain ridges to my front; and presently emerged from the woods at the very spot we had struck in our former journey together.
A chilly twilight reigned in the ravine, and the noise that came up from the ruin of the torrent seemed doubly accented by reason of it. The sound of water moving in darkness has always conveyed to me an impression of something horrible and deadly, be it nothing of more moment than the drip and hollow tinkle of a gutter pipe. But the crash in this echoing gorge was appalling indeed.
For some moments I stood on the brink of the slope, looking across at the great knife of the fall, with a little shiver of fear. Then I shook myself, laughed, and without further ado took my courage in hand, and scrambled down the declivity and up again towards the cleft in the rocks.
Here the chill of heart gripped me again—the watery sliding tunnel looked so evil in the contracting gloom. A false step in that humid chamber, and my bones would pound and crackle on the rocks forty feet below. It must be gone through with now, however; and, taking a long breath, I set foot in the passage under the curving downpour that seemed taut as an arched muscle.
Reaching the burnt recess, a few moments sufficed to restore my self-confidence; and without further hesitation I dived under the inner little fan-shaped fall—which was there, indeed, as Camille had described it—and recovered my balance with pulses drumming thicker than I could have desired.
In a moment I became conscious that some great power was before me. Across a vast, irregular disc filled with the ashy whiteness of the outer twilight, strange, unaccountable forms, misty and undefined, passed, and repassed, and vanished. Cirrus they might have been, or the shadows flung by homing flights of birds; but of this I could not be certain. As the dusk deepened they showed no more, and presently I gazed only into a violet fathomless darkness.
My own excitement now was great; and I found some difficulty in keeping it under control. But for the moment, it seemed to me, I pined greatly for free commune with the liberal atmosphere of earth. Therefore, I dipped under the little fall and made my cautious way to the margin of the cataract.
I was surprised to find for how long a time the phenomenon had absorbed me. The moon was already high in the heavens, and making towards the ravine with rapid steps. Far below, the tumbling waters flashed in her rays, and on all sides great tiers of solemn, trees stood up at attention to salute her.
When her disc silvered the inner rim of the slope I had descended, I returned to my post of observation with tingling nerves. The field of the great object lens was already suffused with the radiance of her approach.
Suddenly my pupils shrank before the apparition of a ghastly grey light, and all in a moment I was face to face with a segment of desolation more horrible than any desert. Monstrous growths of leprosy that had bubbled up and stiffened; fields of ashen slime—the sloughing of a world of corruption; hills of demon, fungus swollen with the fatness of putrefaction; and, in the midst of all, dim, convulsed shapes wallowing, protruding, or stumbling aimlessly onwards, till they sank and disappeared.
* * * * *
Madame Barbiere threw up her hands when she let me in at the door. My appearance, no doubt, was ghastly. I knew not the hour nor the lapse of time covered by my wanderings about the hills, my face hidden in my palms, a drawn feeling about my heart, my lips muttering—muttering fragments of prayers, and my throat jerking with horrible laughter.
For hours I lay face downwards on my bed.
"Monsieur has seen it?"
"I have seen it."
"I heard the rain on the hills. The lens will have been blurred. Monsieur has been spared much."
"God, in His mercy, pity thee! And me—oh, Camille, and me too!"
"He has held out His white hand to me. I go, when I go, with a safe conduct."
* * * * *
He went before the week was out. The drought had broken and for five days the thunder crashed and the wild rain swept the mountains. On the morning of the sixth a drenched shepherd reported in the village that a landslip had choked the fall of Buet, and completely altered its shape. Madame Barbiere broke into the room where I was sitting with Camille, big with the news. She little guessed how it affected her listeners.
"The bon Dieu" said Camille, when she had gone, "has thundered His curse on Nature for revealing His secrets. I, who have penetrated into the forbidden, must perish."
"And I, Camille?"
He turned to me with a melancholy sweet smile, and answered, paraphrasing the dying words of certain noble lips,—
"Be good, Monsieur; be good."
JACK AND JILL
My friend, Monsieur ——, absolutely declines to append his name to these pages, of which he is the virtual author. Nevertheless, he permits me to publish them anonymously, being, indeed, a little curious to ascertain what would have been the public verdict as to his sanity, had he given his personal imprimatur to a narrative on the face of it so incredible.
"How!" he says. "Should I have believed it of another, when I have such astonishing difficulty at this date in realizing that it was I—yes, I, my friend—this same little callow poupon—that was an actual hero of the adventure? Fidele" (by which term we cover the identity of his wife)—"Fidele will laugh in my face sometimes, crying, 'Not thou, little cabbage, nor yet thy faithful, was it that dived through half the world and came up breathless! No, no—I cannot believe it. We folk, so matter-of-fact and so comical. It was of Hansel and Gretel we had been reading hand-in-hand, till we fell asleep in the twilight and fancied this thing.' And then she will trill like a bird at the thought of how solemn Herr Grabenstock, of the Hotel du Mont Blanc, would have stared and edged apart, had we truly recounted to him that which had befallen us between the rising and the setting of a sun. We go forth; it rains—my faith! as it will in the Chamounix valley—and we return in the evening sopped. Very natural. But, for a first cause of our wetting. Ah! there we must be fastidious of an explanation, or we shall find ourselves in peril of restraint.
"Now, write this for me, and believe it if you can. We are not in a conspiracy of imagination—I and the dear courageous."
Therefore I do write it, speaking in the person of Monsieur ——, and largely from his dictation; and my friend shall amuse himself over the nature of its reception.
* * * * *
"One morning (it was in late May)," says Monsieur ——, "my Fidele and I left the Hotel du Mont Blanc for a ramble amongst the hills. We were a little adventurous, because we were innocent. We took no guide but our commonsense; and that served us very ill—or very well, according to the point of view. Ours was that of the birds, singing to the sky and careless of the snake in the grass so long as they can pipe their tune. Of a surety that is the only course. If one would make provision against every chance of accident, one must dematerialize. To die is the only way to secure oneself from fatality.
"Still, it is a wise precaution, I will admit, not to eat of all hedge fruit because blackberries are sweet. Some day, after the fiftieth stomach-ache, we shall learn wisdom, my Fidele and I.
"'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' That, I know, comes into the English gospel.
"Well, I will tell you, I am content to be considered of the first; and my Fidele is assuredly of the second. Yet did she fear, or I rush in? On the contrary, I have a little laughing thought that it was the angel inveighed against the dulness of caution when the fool would have hesitated.
"Now, it was before the season of the Alps; and the mountain aubergistes were, for the most part, not arrived at their desolate hill-taverns. Nor were guides at all in evidence, being yet engaged, the sturdy souls, over their winter occupations. One, no doubt, we could have procured, had we wished it; but we did not. We would explore under the aegis of no cicerone but our curiosity. That was native to us, if the district was strange.
"Following, at first, the instructions of Herr Baedeker, we travelled and climbed, chattering and singing as we went, in the direction of the Montenvert, whence we were to descend upon the Mer de Glace, and enjoy the spectacle of a stupendous glacier.
"'And that, I am convinced,' said Fidele, 'is nothing more nor less than one of those many windows that give light to the monsters of the under-earth.'
"'Little imbecile! In some places this window is six hundred feet thick.'
"'So?' she said. 'That is because their dim eyes could not endure the full light of the sun.'
"We had brought a tin box of sandwiches with us; and this, with my large pewter flask full of wine, was slung upon my back. For we had been told the Hotel du Montenvert was yet closed; and, sure enough when we reached it, the building stood black in a pool of snow, its shuttered windows forlorn, and long icicles hung from the eaves.
"The depression induced by this sight was momentary. We turned from it to the panorama of majestic loveliness that stretched below and around us. The glacier—that rolling sea of glass—descended from the enormous gates of the hills. Its source was the white furnace of the skies; its substance the crystal refuse of the stars; and from its margins the splintered peaks stood up in a thousand forms of beauty. Right and left, in the hollows of the mountains, the mist lay like ponds, opal and translucent; and the shafts of the pine trees standing in it looked like the reflections of themselves.
"It made the eyes ache—this silence of greatness; and it became a relief to shift one's gaze to the reality of one's near neighbourhood—the grass, and the rhododendron bushes, and even the dull walls of the deserted auberge.
"A narrow path dipped over the hill-side and fled into the very jaws of the moraine. Down the first of this path we raced, hand in hand; but soon, finding the impetus overmastering us, we pulled up with difficulty, and descended the rest of the way circumspectly.
"At the foot of the steep slope we came upon the little wooden hutch where, ordinarily, one may procure a guide (also rough socks to stretch over one's boots) for the passage of the glacier. Now, however, the shed was closed and tenantless; and we must e'en dispense with a conductor, should we adventure further.
"Herr Baedeker says, 'Guide unnecessary for the experienced.'
"'Fidele, are we experienced?'
"'We shall be, mon ami, when we have crossed. A guide could not alter that.'
"'But it is true, ma petite. Come, then!'
"We clambered down amongst huge stones. Fidele's little feet went in and out of the crannies like sand-martins. Suddenly, before we realized it, we were on the glacier.
"'Mon Dieu! Is this ice—these blocks of dirty alabaster?'
"Alas! she was justified. This torrent of majestic crystal—seen from above so smooth and bountiful—a flood of the milk of Nature dispensed from the white bosom of the hills! Now, near at hand, what do we find it? A medley of opaque blocks, smeared with grit and rubbish; a vast ruin of avalanches hurled together and consolidated, and of the colour of rock salt.
"'Peste!' I cried. 'We must get to the opposite bank, for all that.
"Mignonne, allons voir si la rose, Qui ce matin avoit desclose....'"
"We clasped hands and set forth on our little traversee, our landmark an odd-shaped needle of spar on the further side. My faith! it was simple. The paveurs of Nature had left the road a trifle rough, that was all. Suddenly we came upon a wide fissure stretched obliquely like the mouth of a sole. Going glibly, we learnt a small lesson of caution therefrom. Six paces, and we should have tumbled in.
"We looked over fearfully. Here, in truth, was real ice at last—green as bottle-glass at the edges, and melting into unfathomable deeps of glowing blue.
"In a moment, with a shriek like that of escaping steam, a windy demon leapt at us from the underneath. It was all of winter in a breath. It seemed to shrivel the skin from our faces—the flesh from our bones. We staggered backwards.
"'Mon ami! mon ami!' cried Fidele, 'my heart is a stone; my eyes are two blisters of water!'
"We danced as the blood returned unwilling to our veins. It was minutes before we could proceed.
"Afterwards I learned that these hellish eruptions of air betoken a change of temperature. It was coming then shortly in a dense rainfall.
"When we were recovered, we sought about for a way to circumambulate the crevasse. Then we remarked that up a huge boulder of ice that had seemed to block our path recent steps, or toe-holes, had been cut. In a twinkling we were over. Fidele—no, a woman never falls.
"'For all this,' she says, shaking her head, 'I maintain that a guide here is a sinecurist.'
"Well, we made the passage safely, and toiled up the steep, loose moraine beyond—to find the track over which was harder than crossing the glacier. But we did it, and struck the path along the hillside, which leads by the Mauvais Pas (the mauvais quart d'heure) to the little cabaret called the Chapeau. This tavern, too, was shut and dismal. It did not matter. We sat like sparrows on a railing, and munched our egg-sandwiches and drank our wine in a sort of glorious stupefaction. For right opposite us was the vast glacier-fall, whose crashing foam was towers and parapets of ice, that went over and rolled into the valley below, a ruin of thunder.
"Far beyond, where the mouth of the gorge spread out littered with monstrous destruction, we saw the hundred threads of the glacier streams collect into a single rope of silver, that went drawn between the hills, a highway of water. It was all a majestic panorama of grey and pearly white—the sky, the torrents, the mountains; but the blue and rusty green of the stone pines, flung abroad in hanging woods and coppices, broke up and distributed the infinite serenity of the snow fields.
"Presently, having drunk deep of rich content, we rose to retrace our steps. For, spurred by vanity, we must be returning the way we had come, to show our confident experience of glaciers.
"All went well. Actually we had passed over near two-thirds of the ice-bed, when a touch on my arm stayed me, and ma mie looked into my eyes, very comical and insolent.
"'Little cabbage,' she said; 'will you not put your new knowledge to account?'
"'But how, my soul?'
"She laughed and pressed my arm to her side. Her heart fluttered like a nestling after its first flight.
"'To rest on the little prowess of a small adventure! No, no! Shall he who has learnt to swim be always content to bathe in shallow water?'
"I was speechless as I gazed on her.
"'Behold, then!' she cried. 'We have opposed ourselves to this problem of the ice, and we have mastered it. See how it rears itself to the inaccessible peaks, the which to reach the poor innocents expend themselves over rocks and drifts. But why should one not climb the mountain by way of the glacier?'
"'Fidele!' I gasped.
"'Ah!' she exclaimed, nodding her head; 'but poor men! They are mules. They spill their blood on the scaling ladders when the town gate is open.'
"Again I cried 'Fidele!'
"'But, yes,' she said, 'it needs a woman to see. It is but two o'clock. Let us ascend the glacier, like a staircase; and presently we shall stand upon the summit of the mountain. Those last little peaks above the ice can be of no importance.'
"I was touched, astounded by the sublimity of her idea. Had no one, then, ever thought of this before?
"We began the ascent.
"I swear we must have toiled upwards half a mile, when the catastrophe took place.
"It was raining then—a dense small mist; and the ice was as if it had been greased. We were proceeding with infinite care, arm in arm, tucked close together. A little doubt, I think, was beginning to oppress us. We could move only with much caution and difficulty; and there were noises—sounds like the clapping of great hands in those rocky attics above us. Then there would come a slamming report, as if the window of the unknown had been burst open by demons; and the moans of the lost would issue, surging down upon the world.
"These thunders, as we were afterwards told, are caused by the splitting of the ice when there comes a fall in the barometer. Then the glacier will yawn like a sliced junket.
"My faith! what a simile! But again the point of view, my friend.
"All in a moment I heard a little cluck. I looked down. Alas! the fine spirit was obscured. Fidele was weeping.
"'Chut! chut!' I exclaimed in consternation. 'We will go back at once.'
"She struggled to smile, the poor mignonne.
"'It is only that my knees are sick,' she said piteously.
"I took her in my strong arms tenderly.
"We had paused on a ridge of hard snow.
"There came a tearing clang—an enormous sucking sound, as of wet lips opening. The snow sank under our feet.
"'My God!' shrieked Fidele.
"I held her convulsively. It happened in an instant, before one could leap aside. The bed of snow on which we were standing broke down into the crevasse it had bridged, and let us through to the depths.
"Will you believe what follows? Pinch your nose and open your mouth. You shall take the whole draught at a breath. The ice at the point where we entered was five hundred feet thick; and we fell to the very bottom of it.
"Ha! ha! Is it difficult to swallow? But it is true—it is quite true. Here I sit, sound and safe, and eminently sane, and that after a fall of five hundred feet.
"We went down, welded together, with a rush and a buzz like a cannon-ball. Thoughts? Ah! my friend, I had none. Who can think even in a high wind? And here the wind of our going would have brained an ox. Only one desperate instinct I had, one little forlorn remnant of humanity—to shield the love of my heart. So my arms never left her; and we fell together. I dreaded nothing, feared nothing, foresaw no terror in the inevitable mangling crash of the end. For time, that is necessary to emotion, was annihilated. We had outstripped it, and left sense and reason sluggishly following in our wake.
"Sense, yes; but not altogether sensation. Flashingly I was conscious here of incredibly swift transitions, from cold to deeper wells of frost; thence down through a stratum of death and negation, between mere blind walls of frigid inhumanity, to have been stayed a moment by which would have pointed all our limbs as stiff as icicles, as stiff as those of frogs plunged into boiling water. But we passed and fell, still crashing upon no obstruction; and thought pursued us, tailing further behind.
"It was the passage of the eternal night—frozen, self-contained; awful as any fancied darkness that is without one tradition of a star. Yet, struggling hereafter to, in some shadowy sense, renew my feelings of the moment, it seemed to me that I had not fallen through darkness at all; but rather that the friction of descent had kindled an inner radiance in me that was independent of the vision of the eyes, and full of promise of a sudden illumination of the soul.
"Now, after falling what depths God knows, I become numbly aware of a little griding sensation at my back, that communicated a whistling small vibration to my whole frame. This intensified, became more pronounced. Perceptibly, in that magnificent refinement of speed, our enormous pace I felt to decrease ever so little. Still we had so far outstripped intelligence as that I was incapable of considering the cause of the change.
"Suddenly, for the first time, pain made itself known; and immediately reason, plunging from above, overtook me, and I could think.
"Then it was I became conscious that, instead of falling, we were rising, rising with immense swiftness, but at a pace that momently slackened—rising, slipping over ice and in contact with it,
"The muscles of my arms, clasped still about Fidele, involuntarily swelled to her. My God! there was a tiny answering pressure. I could have screamed with joy; but physical anguish overmastered me. My back seemed bursting into flame.
"The suffering was intolerable. When, at last, I thought I should go mad, in a moment we took a surging swoop, shot down an easy incline, and stopped.
"There had been noise in our descent, as only now I knew by its cessation—a hissing sound as of wire whirring from a draw-plate. In the profound enormous silence that, at last, enwrapped us, the bliss of freedom from that metallic accompaniment fell on me like a balm. My eyelids closed. Possibly I fainted.
"All in a moment I came to myself, to an undefinable sense of the tremendous pressure of nothingness. Darkness! it was not that; yet it was as little light. It was as if we lay in a dim, luminous chaos, ourselves an integral part of its self-containment. I did not stir; but I spoke: and my strange voice broke the enchantment. Surely never before or since was speech exchanged under such conditions.
"'I can speak, but I cannot look. If I hide so for ever I can die bravely.'
"'Ma petite! oh, my little one! Are you hurt?'
"'I don't know. I think not.'
"Her voice, her dear voice was so odd; but, Mon Dieu! how wonderful in its courage! That, Heaven be praised! is no monopoly of intellect. Indeed, it is imagination that makes men cowards; and to the lack of this possibly we owed our salvation.
"Now, calm and freed of that haunting jar of descent, I became conscious that a sound, that I had at first taken for the rush of my own arteries, had an origin apart from us. It was like the wash and thunder of waters in a deep sewer.
"'Fidele!' I said again.
"'I am listening.'
"'Hear, then! Canst thou free my right arm, that I may feel for the lucifers in my pocket?'
"She moved at once, never raising her face from my breast. I groped for the box, found it; and manipulating with one hand, succeeded in striking a match. It flamed up—a long wax vesta.
"A glory of sleek fires sprang on the instant into life. We lay imprisoned in a house of glass at the foot of a smooth incline rising behind us to unknown heights. A wall of porous and opaque ice-rubbish, into which our feet had plunged deep, had stayed our progress.
"I placed the box by my side ready for use. Our last moments should be lavish of splendour. Stooping for another match, to kindle from the flame of the near-expired one, a thought struck me. Why had we not been at once frozen to death? Yet we lay where we had brought up, as snug and glowing as if we were wrapped in bedclothes.
"The answer came to me in a flash. We had fallen sheer to the glacier bed, which, warmed by subterraneous heat, was ever in process of melting. Possibly, but a comparatively thin curtain of perforated ice separated us from the under torrent.
"The enforced conclusion was astounding; but as yet it inspired no hope. We were none the less doomed and buried.
"I lit a second match, turned about, and gave a start of terror. There, imbedded in the transparent wall at my very shoulder, was something—the body of a man.
"A horrible sight—a horrible, horrible sight—crushed, flattened—a caricature; the very gouts of blood that had burst from him held poised in the massed congelations of water.
"For how long ages had he been travelling to the valley, and from what heights? He was of a bygone generation, by his huge coat cuffs, his metal buttons, by his shoe buckles and the white stockings on his legs, which were pressed thin and sharp, as if cut out of paper. Had he been a climber, an explorer—a contemporary, perhaps, of Saussure and a rival? And what had been his unrecorded fate? To slip into a crevasse, and so for the parted ice to snap upon him again, like a hideous jaw? Its work done, it might at least have opened and dropped him through—not held him intact to jog us, out of all that world of despair, with his battered elbow!
"Perhaps to witness in others the fate he had himself suffered!
"I dropped the match I was holding. I tightened my clasp convulsively about Fidele. Thank God she, at any rate, was blind to this horror within a horror!
"All at once—was it the start I had given, or the natural process of dissolution beneath our feet?—we were moving again. Swift—swifter! Fidele uttered a little moaning cry. The rubbish of ice crashed below us, and we sank through.
"I knew nothing, then, but that we were in water—that we had fallen from a little height, and were being hurried along. The torrent, now deep, now so shallow that my feet scraped its bed, gushed in my ears and blinded my eyes.
"Still I hugged Fidele, and I could feel by her returning grasp that she lived. The water was not unbearably cold as yet. The air that came through cracks and crevasses had not force to overcome the under warmth.
"I felt something slide against me—clutched and held on. It was a brave pine log. Could I recover it at this date I would convert it into a flagstaff for the tricolour. It was our raft, our refuge; and it carried us to safety.
"I cannot give the extravagant processes of that long journey. It was all a rushing, swirling dream—a mad race of mystery and sublimity, to which the only conscious periods were wild, flitting glimpses of wonderful ice arabesques, caught momentarily as we passed under fissures that let the light of day through dimly.
"Gradually a ghostly radiance grew to encompass us; and by a like gradation the water waxed intensely cold. Hope then was blazing in our hearts; but this new deathliness went nigh to quench it altogether. Yet, had we guessed the reason, we could have foregone the despair. For, in truth, we were approaching that shallower terrace of the glacier beyond the fall, through which the light could force some weak passage, and the air make itself felt, blowing upon the beds of ice.
"Well, we survived; and still we survive. My faith, what a couple! Sublimity would have none of us. The glacier rejected souls so commonplace as not to be properly impressed by its inexorability.
"This, then, was the end. We swept into a huge cavern of ice—through it—beyond it, into the green valley and the world that we love. And there, where the torrent splits up into a score of insignificant streams, we grounded and crawled to dry land and sat down and laughed.
"Yes, we could do it—we could laugh. Is that not bathos? But Fidele and I have a theory that laughter is the chief earnest of immortality.
"To dry land I have said. Mon Dieu! the torrent was no wetter. It rains in the Chamounix valley. We looked to see whence we had fallen, and not even the Chapeau was visible through the mist.
"But, as I turned, Fidele uttered a little cry.
"'The flask, and the sandwich-box, and your poor coat!'
"'Comment?' I said; and in a moment was in my shirt-sleeves.
"I stared, and I wondered, and I clucked in my throat.
"Holy saints! I was adorned with a breastplate on my back. The friction of descent, first welding together these, the good ministers to our appetite, had worn the metal down in the end to a mere skin or badge, the heat generated from which had scorched and frizzled the cloth beneath it.
"I needed not to seek further explanation of the pain I had suffered—was suffering then, indeed, as I had reason to know when ecstasy permitted a return of sensation. My back bears the scars at this moment.
"'It shall remain there for ever!' I cried, 'like the badge of a cocher de fiacre, who has made the fastest journey on record. 'Coachman! from the glacier to the valley.' 'Mais oui, monsieur. Down this crevasse, if you please.'
"And that is the history of our adventure.
"Why we were not dashed to pieces? But that, as I accept it, is easy of elucidation. Imagine a vast crescent moon, with a downward nick from the end of the tail. This form the fissure took, in one enormous sweep and drop towards the mouth of the valley. Now, as we rushed headlong, the gentle curve received us from space to substance quite gradually, until we were whirring forward wholly on the latter, my luggage suffering the brunt of the friction. The upward sweep of the crescent diminished our progress—more and yet more—until we switched over the lower point and shot quietly down the incline beyond. And all this in ample room, and without meeting with a single unfriendly obstacle.
"'Voila, mes chers amis, ce qui me met en peine.'
"Fidele laughs, the rogue!
"'Ta, ta, ta!' she says. 'But they will not believe a word of it all.'"
THE VANISHING HOUSE
"My grandfather," said the banjo, "drank 'dog's-nose,' my father drank 'dog's-nose,' and I drink 'dog's-nose.' If that ain't heredity, there's no virtue in the board schools."
"Ah!" said the piccolo, "you're always a-boasting of your science. And so, I suppose, your son'll drink 'dog's-nose,' too?"
"No," retorted the banjo, with a rumbling laugh, like wind in the bung-hole of an empty cask; "for I ain't got none. The family ends with me; which is a pity, for I'm a full-stop to be proud on."
He was an enormous, tun-bellied person—a mere mound of expressionless flesh, whose size alone was an investment that paid a perpetual dividend of laughter. When, as with the rest of his company, his face was blackened, it looked like a specimen coal on a pedestal in a museum.
There was Christmas company in the Good Intent, and the sanded tap-room, with its trestle tables and sprigs of holly stuck under sooty beams reeked with smoke and the steam of hot gin and water.
"How much could you put down of a night, Jack?" said a little grinning man by the door.
"Why," said the banjo, "enough to lay the dustiest ghost as ever walked."
"Could you, now?" said the little man.
"Ah!" said the banjo, chuckling. "There's nothing like settin' one sperit to lay another; and there I could give you proof number two of heredity."
"What! Don't you go for to say you ever see'd a ghost!"
"Haven't I? What are you whisperin' about, you blushful chap there by the winder?"
"I was only remarking sir, 'twere snawin' like the devil."
"Is it? Then the devil has been misjudged these eighteen hundred and ninety odd years."
"But did you ever see a ghost?" said the little grinning man, pursuing his subject.
"No, I didn't, sir," mimicked the banjo, "saving in coffee grounds. But my grandfather in his cups see'd one; which brings us to number three in the matter of heredity."
"Give us the story, Jack," said the "bones," whose agued shins were extemporizing a rattle on their own account before the fire.
"Well, I don't mind," said the fat man. "It's seasonable; and I'm seasonable, like the blessed plum-pudden, I am; and the more burnt brandy you set about me, the richer and headier I'll go down."
"You'd be a jolly old pudden to digest," said the piccolo.
"You blow your aggrawation into your pipe and sealing-wax the stops," said his friend.
He drew critically at his "churchwarden" a moment or so, leaned forward, emptied his glass into his capacious receptacles, and, giving his stomach a shift, as if to accommodate it to its new burden, proceeded as follows:—
"Music and malt is my nat'ral inheritance. My grandfather blew his 'dog's-nose,' and drank his clarinet like a artist and my father—"
"What did you say your grandfather did?" asked the piccolo.
"He played the clarinet."
"You said he blew his 'dog's-nose.'"
"Don't be a ass, Fred!" said the banjo, aggrieved. "How the blazes could a man blow his dog's nose, unless he muzzled it with a handkercher, and then twisted its tail? He played the clarinet, I say; and my father played the musical glasses, which was a form of harmony pertiklerly genial to him. Amongst us we've piped out a good long century—ah! we have, for all I look sich a babby bursting on sops and spoon meat."
"What!" said the little man by the door. "You don't include them cockt hatses in your expeerunce?"
"My grandfather wore 'em, sir. He wore a play-actin' coat, too, and buckles to his shoes, when he'd got any; and he and a friend or two made a permanency of 'waits' (only they called 'em according to the season), and got their profit goin' from house to house, principally in the country, and discoursin' music at the low rate of whatever they could get for it."
"Ain't you comin' to the ghost, Jack?" said the little man hungrily.
"All in course, sir. Well, gentlemen, it was hard times pretty often with my grandfather and his friends, as you may suppose; and never so much as when they had to trudge it across country, with the nor'-easter buzzin' in their teeth and the snow piled on their cockt hats like lemon sponge on entry dishes. The rewards, I've heard him say—for he lived to be ninety, nevertheless—was poor compensation for the drifts, and the inflienza, and the broken chilblains; but now and again they'd get a fair skinful of liquor from a jolly squire, as 'd set 'em up like boggarts mended wi' new broomsticks."
"Ho-haw!" broke in a hurdle-maker in a corner; and then, regretting the publicity of his merriment, put his fingers bashfully to his stubble lips.
"Now," said the banjo, "it's of a pertikler night and a pertikler skinful that I'm a-going to tell you; and that night fell dark, and that skinful were took a hundred years ago this December, as I'm a Jack-pudden!"
He paused a moment for effect, before he went on:—
"They were down in the sou'-west country, which they little knew; and were anighing Winchester city, or should 'a' been. But they got muzzed on the ungodly downs, and before they guessed, they was off the track. My good hat! there they was, as lost in the snow as three nutshells a-sinkin' into a hasty pudden. Well, they wandered round; pretty confident at first, but getting madder and madder as every sense of their bearings slipped from them. And the bitter cold took their vitals, so as they saw nothing but a great winding sheet stretched abroad for to wrap their dead carcasses in.
"At last my grandfather he stopt and pulled hisself together with an awful face, and says he: 'We're Christmas pie for the carrying-on crows if we don't prove ourselves human. Let's fetch out our pipes and blow our trouble into 'em.' So they stood together, like as if they was before a house, and they played 'Kate of Aberdare' mighty dismal and flat, for their fingers froze to the keys.
"Now, I tell you, they hadn't climbed over the first stave, when there come a skirl of wind and spindrift of snow as almost took them off of their feet; and, on the going down of it, Jem Sloke, as played the hautboy, dropped the reed from his mouth, and called out, 'Sakes alive! if we fools ain't been standin' outside a gentleman's gate all the time, and not knowin' it!'
"You might 'a' knocked the three of 'em down wi' a barley straw, as they stared and stared, and then fell into a low, enjoyin' laugh. For they was standin' not six fut from a tall iron gate in a stone wall, and behind these was a great house showin' out dim, with the winders all lighted up.
"'Lord!' chuckled my grandfather, 'to think o' the tricks o' this vagarious country! But, as we're here, we'll go on and give 'em a taste of our quality.'
"They put new heart into the next movement, as you may guess; and they hadn't fair started on it, when the door of the house swung open, and down the shaft of light that shot out as far as the gate there come a smiling young gal, with a tray of glasses in her hands.
"Now she come to the bars; and she took and put a glass through, not sayin' nothin', but invitin' some one to drink with a silent laugh.
"Did any one take that glass? Of course he did, you'll be thinkin'; and you'll be thinkin' wrong. Not a man of the three moved. They was struck like as stone, and their lips was gone the colour of sloe berries. Not a man took the glass. For why? The moment the gal presented it, each saw the face of a thing lookin' out of the winder over the porch, and the face was hidjus beyond words, and the shadder of it, with the light behind, stretched out and reached to the gal, and made her hidjus, too.
"At last my grandfather give a groan and put out his hand; and, as he did it, the face went, and the gal was beautiful to see agen.
"'Death and the devil!' said he. 'It's one or both, either way; and I prefer 'em hot to cold!'
"He drank off half the glass, smacked his lips, and stood staring a moment.
"'Dear, dear!' said the gal, in a voice like falling water, 'you've drunk blood, sir!'
"My grandfather gave a yell, slapped the rest of the liquor in the faces of his friends, and threw the cup agen the bars. It broke with a noise like thunder, and at that he up'd with his hands and fell full length into the snow."
There was a pause. The little man by the door was twisting nervously in his chair.
"He came to—of course, he came to?" said he at length.
"He come to," said the banjo solemnly, "in the bitter break of dawn; that is, he come to as much of hisself as he ever was after. He give a squiggle and lifted his head; and there was he and his friends a-lyin' on the snow of the high downs."
"And the house and the gal?"
"Narry a sign of either, sir, but just the sky and the white stretch; and one other thing."
"And what was that?"
"A stain of red sunk in where the cup had spilt."
There was a second pause, and the banjo blew into the bowl of his pipe.
"They cleared out of that neighbourhood double quick, you'll bet," said he. "But my grandfather was never the same man agen. His face took purple, while his friends' only remained splashed with red, same as birth marks; and, I tell you, if he ever ventur'd upon 'Kate of Aberdare,' his cheeks swelled up to the reed of his clarinet, like as a blue plum on a stalk. And forty year after, he died of what they call solution of blood to the brain."
"And you can't have better proof than that," said the little man.
"That's what I say," said the banjo. "Next player, gentlemen, please."
"I'd not go higher, sir," said my landlady's father. I made out his warning through the shrill piping of the wind; and stopped and took in the plunging seascape from where I stood. The boom of the waves came up from a vast distance beneath; sky and the horizon of running water seemed hurrying upon us over the lip of the rearing cliff.
"It crumbles!" he cried. "It crumbles near the edge like as frosted mortar. I've seen a noble sheep, sir, eighty pound of mutton, browsing here one moment, and seen it go down the next in a puff of white dust. Hark to that! Do you hear it?"
Through the tumult of the wind in that high place came a liquid vibrant sound, like the muffled stroke of iron on an anvil. I thought it the gobble of water in clanging caves deep down below.
"It might be a bell," I said.
The old man chuckled joyously. He was my cicerone for the nonce; had come out of his chair by the ingle-nook to taste a little the salt of life. The north-easter flashed in the white cataracts of his eyes and woke a feeble activity in his scrannel limbs. When the wind blew loud, his daughter had told me, he was always restless, like an imprisoned sea-gull. He would be up and out. He would rise and flap his old draggled pinions, as if the great air fanned an expiring spark into flame.
"It is a bell!" he cried—"the bell of old St. Dunstan's, that was swallowed by the waters in the dark times."
"Ah," I said. "That is the legend hereabouts."
"No legend, sir—no legend. Where be the tombstones of drownded mariners to prove it such? Not one to forty that they has in other sea-board parishes. For why? Dunstan bell sounds its warning, and not a craft will put out."
"There is the storm cone," I suggested.
He did not hear me. He was punching with his staff at one of a number of little green mounds that lay about us.
"I could tell you a story of these," he said. "Do you know where we stand?"
"On the site of the old churchyard?"
"Ay, sir; though it still bore the name of the new yard in my first memory of it."
"Is that so? And what is the story?"
He dwelt a minute, dense with introspection. Suddenly he sat himself down upon a mossy bulge in the turf, and waved me imperiously to a place beside him.
"The old order changeth," he said. "The only lasting foundations of men's works shall be godliness and law-biding. Long ago they builded a new church—here, high up on the cliffs, where the waters could not reach; and, lo! the waters wrought beneath and sapped the foundations, and the church fell into the sea."
"So I understand," I said.
"The godless are fools," he chattered knowingly. "Look here at these bents—thirty of 'em, may be. Tombstones, sir; perished like man his works, and the decayed stumps of them coated with salt grass."
He pointed to the ragged edge of the cliff a score paces away.
"They raised it out there," he said, "and further—a temple of bonded stone. They thought to bribe the Lord to a partnership in their corruption, and He answered by casting down the fair mansion into the waves."
I said, "Who—who, my friend?"
"They that builded the church," he answered.
"Well," I said. "It seems a certain foolishness to set the edifice so close to the margin."
Again he chuckled.
"It was close, close, as you say; yet none so close as you might think nowadays. Time hath gnawed here like a rat on a cheese. But the foolishness appeared in setting the brave mansion between the winds and its own graveyard. Let the dead lie seawards, one had thought, and the church inland where we stand. So had the bell rung to this day; and only the charnel bones flaked piecemeal into the sea."