"Well, then," said Molly, "since you are so accommodating, I not only advise but order you to go over the Great St. Bernard Pass, down to Aosta."
"Might a humble mortal ask, 'Why Aosta?'" I ventured.
"Because it's beautiful, and beneficent, and a great many other things which begin with B."
"You've never seen it, though," said Jack.
"But I've always wanted to see it, and as you and I have another programme to carry out at present, it would be nice if Lord Lane would go, and tell us all about it. He's promised me to keep a sort of diary, for our benefit later."
"I saw the Duchess of Aosta married at Kingston-on-Thames," I reflected aloud. "She was a very pretty girl. What am I to do after I've made my pilgrimage to her country—about which, by the way, I know practically nothing except that there's a poster in railway stations which represents it as having bright pink mountains and a purply-yellow sky?"
"Oh, after Aosta, I've no instructions," replied Molly, as if she washed her hands of me and of my affairs. "For the rest, let Fate decide." As she spoke, she looked mystic, sibylline, and I could almost fancy that before her dreamy eyes arose a vision of my future as if floating in a magic crystal. For an instant I was inclined to beg that she would prophesy, but the mood passed. All that I asked or expected to get from the future was a mule, a man, some mountains, and forgetfulness.
It was decided, then, that the only questions to be put to Herr Widmer should concern the mule. I had a vague dream of presently standing on the balcony, while various muleteers and their well-groomed animals passed in review under my eyes, but the landlord's first words struck at my hopes and left them maimed.
"There are no mules to be had in Lucerne," he said.
"In the country near by, then?"
"Nor in the country near by. The nearest place where you could get one would be in the Valais—best at Brig."
"But I don't want to go to Brig," I said forlornly. "If I went to Brig, that would mean that I should have to do a lot of walking afterwards, to reach the parts I wish to reach, through the hot Rhone Valley, where I should be eaten up by gnats and other disagreeable wild beasts. I know the Rhone Valley between Brig and Martigny already, by railway travelling, and that is more than enough."
"The Rhone Valley is a misunderstood valley. Even between Martigny and Brig, it is far more beautiful than anyone who has seen it only from the railway can possibly judge," pleaded Herr Widmer. "It well repays a riding or walking tour."
But my soul girded against the Rhone Valley, and I would not be driven into it by persuasion. "I'd rather put up with a donkey to carry my luggage," said I, with visions of discarding half my Instantaneous Breakfasts, "than begin my walk in the Rhone Valley. Surely, Lucerne can be counted on to yield me up at least a donkey?"
"You must go into Italy to find an ane," replied the landlord, inexorable as Destiny.
I suddenly understood how a woman feels when she stamps her foot and bursts into tears. (There are advantages in being a woman.) To be thwarted for the sake of a mere, wretched animal, which I had always looked upon with indifference as the least of beasts! It was too much. My features hardened. Inwardly, I swore a great oath that, if I went to the world's end to obtain it, I would have a pack-mule, or, if worse came to worst, a pack-donkey.
At this bitter moment I chanced to meet Molly's eyes and read in them a sympathy well-nigh extravagant. But I knew why it had been called out. If there is one thing which causes unbearable anguish to a true American girl it is to find herself wanting something "right away" which she cannot have. But luckily for her country's peace, her lovers' happiness, this occurs seldom.
"What is the nearest place in Italy where Lord Lane could get a donkey?" she asked.
"It is possible that he might be able to buy or hire one at Airolo," said our landlord. "At one time they had them there, for the railway works, and mules also. But now I do not——"
"We can go there and see," said Molly.
"Airolo's on the other side of the St. Gothard, and automobiles aren't allowed on the Swiss passes," remarked Jack.
This, to me, sounded final, so far as Airolo was concerned, but not so with the Honourable Mrs. Winston!
"What do they do to you if you do go?" she asked, turning slightly pale.
"They fined an American gentleman who crossed the Simplon in his automobile last year, five thousand francs," answered Herr Widmer.
"Oh!" said she. "So an American did go over one of the passes? Well, thank you so much; we must decide what to do, and talk it over with you again later. Meanwhile, we're very happy, for it's lovely here."
Hardly had the door of the sitting-room closed on our host, when Molly, with the air of having a gun-powder plot to unfold, beckoned us both to come near. "I'll tell you what we'll do," said she, in a half-whisper, when surrounded by her body-guard of two. "First, we'll ask everybody in Lucerne whether there are any mules or donkeys on the spot, just in case Herr Widmer might be mistaken; if there aren't any, let's go over the St. Gothard in the middle of the night."
"Good heavens, what a desperate character I've married!" exclaimed Jack.
"Not at all. Don't you see, at night there would be nobody on their silly old Pass that they make such a fuss about. Even in daylight diligences don't go over the St. Gothard in our times, and at night there'd be nothing, so we couldn't expose man or beast to danger. We'd rush the douanes, or whatever they call them on passes, and if we were caught, what are five thousand francs?"
"I wouldn't dream of letting you do such a thing for me," I broke in hurriedly. "If Airolo or the neighbourhood turns out to be the happy hunting ground of the sedate mule or pensive ane, I will simply take train——"
"You will take the train, if you take it, over Jack's and my dead bodies," remarked Molly coldly.
"It would be rather sport to rush the Pass at night," said Jack.
"Oh, you darling!" cried Molly, "I've never loved you so much."
This naturally settled it.
We walked down to the town by an exquisite path leading through dark, mysterious pine forests; where the slim, straight trunks of the tall trees seemed tightly stretched, like the strings of a great harp, and where melancholy, elusive music was played always by the wind spirits. In Lucerne we did not, as Molly had suggested, ask everybody to stand and deliver information, but we compromised by visiting tourists' bureaux. At these places the verdict was an echo of our landlord's, and I saw that Molly and Jack were glad. Having scented powder, they would have been disappointed if the midnight battle need not be fought.
Molly had never seen Lucerne, which was too beautiful for a fleeting glance. It was arranged that, after driving me over the Pass, for weal or woe, they should return. They would leave most of their luggage at the Sonnenberg, and come back to spend some days, before continuing their tour as originally mapped out.
We slept that night in peace (it is wonderful how well you do sleep, even with a "mind diseased," after hours of racing through pure, fresh air on a motor car); and next day we began stealthy preparations for our adventure.
The Wings of the Wind
"Oh, still solitude, only matched in the skies; Perilous in steep places, Soft in the level races, Where sweeping in phantom silence the cloudland flies." —R. BRIDGES.
The wind howled a menace to Mercedes, as she glided down the winding road towards the comfortable, domestic-looking suburbs of Lucerne. Banks of cloud raced each other across the sky, and, crossing the bridge over the Reuss, we saw that the waters of the Lake, turquoise yesterday, were to-day a sullen indigo. The big steamers rolled at their moorings; white-crested waves were leaping against the quays, and thick mists clung like rolls of wool to the lower slopes of Pilatus.
Molly's spirits rose as the mercury in the barometer fell. "Would you care for people if they were always good-tempered, or weather if it were always fair?" she asked me (we were sitting together in the tonneau, Jack driving). "I revel in storms, and if we have one to-night, when we are on the Pass, one of the dearest wishes of my life will be gratified. 'A storm on the St. Gothard!' Haven't the words a thunder-roll? Sunlight and mountain passes don't belong together. I like to think of great Alpine roads as the fastnesses of giants, who threaten death to puny man when he ventures into their power."
It had been arranged that we should "potter" (as Winston called it) round the arms of the star-fish lake, until we reached Flueelen; that from there we should steal as far as we dared up the Reussthal while daylight lasted, dine at some village inn, and then, instead of returning to the lowlands of Lucerne, make a dash across the mighty barrier that shut us away from Italy. Under a lowering sky, and buffeted by short, sharp gusts of wind, which seemed the heralds of fiercer blasts, we swung along the reedy shores of the narrowing lake, the broken sides of the Rigi standing finely up on our right hand. Winston was satirical about the poor Rigi and its railway, calling it the Primrose Hill and the Devil's Dyke of Switzerland, the paradise of trippers, a mountain whose sides are hidden under cataracts of beer-bottles; but from our point of view, the vulgarities of the maligned mountain were mellowed by distance, and I neither could nor would look upon it as contemptible.
Leaving the Lake of the Forest Cantons, we spun along the margin of the tamer sheet of Zug, to pass, beyond Arth, into the great wilderness caused by the fearful landslide of a century ago, when a mighty mass of rock and earth split off from the main bulk of the Rossberg and thundered down into the valley. The slow processes of nature had done much to cover up decently all traces of the Titan's rage, but the huge, bare scar on the side of the Rossberg still told its tale of tragedy. By the peaceful Lowerzer See the road undulated pleasantly, and at Schwyz (the hub of Swiss history) we had tea, the torn and imposing pyramids of the two Myten bravely rearing their heads above the mists that encumbered the valleys.
There was no need to hurry, for we had the night before us, so we passed slowly, halting often, along the marvellous Axenstrasse, while Jack distilled into Molly's willing ears legends from the old heroic days of Switzerland, before it became the happy haven of hotel-keepers. From the car we could note the characteristics of the Cantons which had entered into the famous bond; pastoral and leafy Unterwalden, with green fields and orchards; Schwyz, also green and fertile; but Uri (the cold, highland partner in this great alliance), a country of towering mountains and savage rocks. Molly wanted to get a boat, and row across to the Ruetli to stand on that spot where, in 1307, Walter Fuerst, Arnold of Melchthal, and Werner Stauffacher took the famous oath, and very reluctantly she gave up the wish when Jack pointed to the rising waves, painting in lurid colours the sudden and dangerous storms that sweep the Lake of Uri. When he went on, however, to insinuate doubts as to the historic accuracy of these old stories, and to hint that even William Tell might himself he an incorporeal legend, Molly clapped a little hand over his mouth, crying out that even if he had tried to destroy the Maid of Orleans he must spare William Tell. Further on, she made us confide the car to Gotteland on the Axenstrasse, while we descended the path to Tell's chapel and did reverence to the hero's memory. On such a day as this must it have been that Tell leaped ashore from the boat, leaving Gessler to look after himself; for the blasts were shrieking down the lake, and the waves dashed their foam over the ledge where stands the chapel.
Jack stopped several times in the rock galleries of the Axenstrasse before we reached Flueelen; consequently it was evening when we slipped into little Altdorf, where Molly insisted on making a curtsey to the statue of Tell and his agreeable little boy. Winston predicted that we should probably not be challenged until we got to Goeschenen, as up to that point the road does not take on a true Alpine character. The storm (which seemed rising to a point of fury) was in our favour, too, for no one would choose to be out on such a night, save mad English automobilists and wilful American girls.
Dusk was beginning to shadow the Reussthal, as we ran past the railway station at Erstfeld, and began at length the ascent of the St. Gothard Road. The great railway (of which we had caught glimpses as we came along the lake) was now our companion, while on the other hand roared the tumbling Reuss. So hoarse and insistent was the voice of the stream that Molly suggested it should be "had up for brawling." It did us the service, however, of drowning the noise of our motor, at all times a discreetly silent machine; and as Jack had given orders that the big Bleriots should not be lighted (two good oil lamps showing us the way), we had high hopes that we might fly by unnoticed, on the wings of the storm. In Amsteg no one seemed to look upon us with surprise, and here the road turned, to worm itself into the heart of the mountains, while the railway, often disappearing into tunnels, ran far above our heads.
By the time we had reached Gurtnellen night had fallen black and close, and Molly issued an edict that we should dine in the open air, instead of seeking the doubtful comforts of a village inn, where, too, we might suffer from the solicitude of some officious policeman. The car accordingly was run under the lee of a great rock, the ever-inspired Gotteland extemporised a shelter with the waterproof rugs, and the blue flame of the chafing-dish presently cheered us with its glow. The wind bellowed along the precipices, the Reuss shouted in its rocky bed, and once an express from Italy to the north passed high above us, streaming its lights through the darkness like sparks from a boy's squib. Yet those plutocratic travellers up in the wagons lits were not having anything like the "good time" we enjoyed, warm in our motor coats, sitting snug behind our rock, a lamp from the car illuminating our little party and shining on Molly's piquant profile as she brewed savoury messes in her magic cauldron. This was testing thoroughly the resources of the automobile, which was playing the part of travelling kitchen and larder as well as travelling chariot, and could no doubt be made, with a little ingenuity, to play the parts also of travelling bed and tent. Yet, as I said all this aloud to Jack, my mind leaped forward to other nights which I should soon be spending alone tinder the stars, and I thought tenderly of my aluminium stove and tent, my sleeping-sack, and the other camping tools I had bought in Bern.
From where we lay hid behind our rock to Airolo was only some thirty-two miles, and the car ate up distance with so voracious an appetite, that it was clear we should arrive in the little Italian town in the dead waste and middle of the night. To travel a forbidden road on an automobile, and then to knock up a snoring innkeeper at one in the morning, to ask him where we could find a donkey, seemed to be straining unduly the sense of humour; so after consultation we decided that we should leave Airolo to its slumbers and speed down the Pass into Italy until we ran to earth the object of our quest.
Molly had produced excellent coffee; the smoke of our cigarettes mingled its perfume with the night air. Our position had in it something unique, for while we were "in the heart of one of nature's most savage retreats" (as said a guide-book of my boyhood), we were at the same time enjoying the refinements of civilisation, and I suggested to Winston that our bivouac would form a fit subject for a picture labelled, in the manner of some Dutch masters, "Automobilists Reposing."
By the time Gotteland had packed up everything, and we were seated once more in the car, it was nearly eleven o'clock at night. Coming out from the shelter of our rock, so fierce a blast of wind smote us that Molly would, I think, have been carried off her feet had I not given her a steadying arm. We had to cram our caps on our heads, or the wind would have torn them from us, and the voice of the motor was swallowed up in the shrieking of the tempest. Molly was evidently destined to have her wish.
The car ran swiftly up the road to Wasen, and some twinkling lights and a huge crimson eye at the entrance to the great tunnel told us that we had done the ten miles to Goeschenen. No one stirred in the streets of the village, and, gliding cat-like past the station, Jack put the car at the beginning of the real ascent of the famous St. Gothard Road. The higher we went, the more wildly roared the storm. There was something appalling in the fierce volleyings of the wind along the stark and broken faces of the precipice: it was like the rattle of thunder. In the sombre defile of the Schoellenen the air rushed as through a funnel. We could see nothing save the thread-like road illuminated by our steadfast lanterns—the sole beacon of safety in this welter. We had a ghostly impression of winding through a narrow gorge, the river roaring in its depths; then, dashing through an avalanche gallery (where the lights played strange tricks with the vaulted roof), we came out upon the Devil's Bridge. The spray from the Reuss, which here drops a full hundred feet into the abyss, lashed our faces as with whips; the storm leaped at us out of the blackness like a wolf; the car quivered, and for an instant it seemed that we should be hurled against the parapet of the bridge. But we passed unharmed, and a quarter of a mile further on Winston stopped in the welcome shelter of the Urner Loch, a tunnelled passage in the rock.
We gasped out broken expressions of a fearful joy; then, seeing that Molly was well, and that the wind-wolf's teeth had torn nothing from the car, Jack went full speed ahead again, steering along the open Urseren Valley, where we had fleeting glimpses of green fields instead of granite rocks. Thus we came to Andermatt, where not the eye of a mouse seemed open to mark our quick and stealthy passage. We were now on that great mountain highroad that slants in a straight line across almost all Switzerland from Coire to Martigny; but we kept on it only for a little while, to steal through Hospenthal—as dead asleep as the other villages (for Labour had not yet begun to waken in its hard bed), and take the southern road that leads to Italy.
Thus far, audacity had been laurelled by success. It was near one in the morning, and we were spinning fast up a valley which showed bleakly in the flying lights of our car. Soon Jack called to us that we had crossed the border line of the Canton Ticino, and presently through the blackness twinkled the little lakes which mark the summit of the Pass. We were nearly seven thousand feet above the sea, and suddenly, as we crossed the ridge and began to sail down the dismal Val Tremolo towards Airolo, the great wind that had made majestic music all day and night ceased to blow. We ran into a zone of motionless, ice-cold air, and what seemed an unnatural silence, only the hum of the motor breaking the frozen stillness of these high Alpine solitudes.
The road plunged to lower levels in interminable windings, the car swooping in a series of bird-like flights, exhilarating to the nerves, thrilling to the imagination; for in the blackness that held us we could but guess at abysses which dropped away almost from under the tyres of our wheels. Sometimes we dashed over foaming rivers, and soon we sped through Airolo, where yet no one moved. Now the loud-voiced Ticino was our companion, and we swept down through an open valley to Faido, where we met the first human being we had seen since we left Gurtnellen. It was a very old man, with a red cap, like a stocking, pulled close upon his head. He had a rake on his shoulder, and we were close on him before he knew; for the car was coasting, and ran with hardly any noise save the whir of the chains. For a flashing instant that old face shone out of the circle of our lights, concave with astonishment; then we lost it forever.
"No fear that he will telephone to have us stopped lower down," said Molly. "He thinks we are supernatural, and will go home and tell his grandchildren that he has seen witches tearing home after a revel up among the glaciers."
Faster still the car flew down the road. The air that streamed past us held the faint, elusive perfume of Italy, which softly hints the presence of the walnut, the chestnut, and the grape. Through village after village we swept at speed, our lamps shining now on mulberry and fig trees, and on vines trained over trellises held up by splintered granite slabs. Next we came suddenly upon an Italian-looking town with bad pave and dimly lighted streets, where three or four workmen, early astir, stared at us in bewilderment. It was Bellinzona; but passing through, we came out presently on the margin of an immense sheet of water, and it was only in Locarno on the edge of Lago Maggiore, when dawn was paling the eastern sky, that Jack at last drew rein.
No one was tired; no one wanted to rest. On the contrary, our rapid flight over the Alps had intoxicated us with the sense of speed; and we were all excitedly for going on until we should reach the frontier. As pink dawn blossomed in the sky, like a heavenly orchard, and the mountain tops were beaten into copper, we glided along the edge of the lake, past picturesque villages and campanili, and cypress trees. At the Italian frontier there were the usual tedious formalities of payment and sealing the car with a leaden seal; but when all this was done by sleepy officials, surly at our early passage, though little recking of our crimes, we sailed on again, Molly driving now, through a landscape magically clear in the young morning light.
Suddenly we all started in joyous astonishment, and Molly brought the car to a stop. Each had seen the same thing, each had been struck with the same thought. Here, at last, we had found what we had come so far to seek; what Switzerland denied us, Italy offered. Standing alone in a field by the roadside was a small, dark grey donkey, tethered to a stone; and no other living being was in sight. The creature was not eating; it was only thinking; and it looked at us with an eye that seemed to speak of loneliness and the desire for human fellowship. "The very thing for you!" cried Molly; and the long-sought-for treasure, finding itself observed, flicked one of its heavy ears.
Gotteland and I dismounted and went nearer. As we approached, the donkey nickered; and as its family is famed for reticence, such proof of friendliness made me yearn to possess the deserted little beast. But its legs were very thin, its hoofs exceedingly small, and the thought of loading so frail a structure with the great packs that held my camping kit seemed a barbarity. Meanwhile Gotteland, who knows something of everything, had carefully examined the tiny animal, and just as I was growing sentimental over its perfections, he broke the charm by pronouncing it to be incredibly old, and unfit for work. He also drew my attention to a disagreeable sore upon its shoulder. It was sad; but indisputably the man was right; in any case there was no one with whom a bargain could have been arranged, and with poignant regret I was forced to leave my treasure-trove to its solitary thoughts. After this we did not stop again until Molly steered the car to the door of a beautiful hotel in Pallanza, where the shirt-sleeved concierge hurried into his gold-laced coat, to receive in fitting style the unusually early guests.
My first care, after coffee and a bath, was to examine the landlord of the hotel on momentous question of mules and donkeys. At Lucerne, I told him, they had assured me that the animals "flourished" in Canton Ticino and the neighbourhood of the Italian Lakes. But I met with no encouragement. Mules and donkeys were rarely seen in these parts, the host declared. True, a few peasants employed them in the fields; but those were poor things, unfit for an excursion such as Monsieur purposed. At Piedimulera, perhaps, Monsieur would find what he wanted; yes, at Piedimulera, or if not, at Domodossola; or—his face brightened—in the Valais, preferably at Brig. Yes, he was certain that mules and asses in abundance could be found at Brig in the Rhone Valley. Brig! My heart sank. It was the old story. Counterfeiting patience, I explained that I had an antipathy to the Rhone Valley, and had actually crossed the Alps to find animals in Italy rather than be driven to seek them in Brig.
Crushed by a hopeless, answering gesture, I made my report to Molly and Jack. "It will end," I said, "in my traversing the world, and eventually arriving in Japan, still searching the rara avis. By that time I shall have become a harmless lunatic, and people will treat my babblings with indulgent forbearance, when I go from house to house begging to be supplied with a pack-mule or a pack-donkey."
At dejeuner, in a garden which was a successful imitation of Eden, the situation did not, however, look so dark. The perfume of flowers, distilled by the hot sun, was of Araby the Blest; the Borromean Islands spread their enchantments before us, across a glittering blue expanse of lake, and the world was after all endurable, though empty of mules. Besides, Molly was a sweet consoler. She dwelt on the hopeful suggestion in the name Piedimulera. It could not be wholly deceiving, she argued. Why name a place Foot-of-a-Mule, if there were no mules there?
"If there aren't," I exclaimed, "I swear to you that I will, by fair means or foul, dispose of at Piedimulera all the things with which I fondly thought to deck the animal my fancy had painted. Everything I bought at Bern shall go, if I have to dig a grave by night in which to bury them. This is a vow, and though my heart be wrung, I'll keep it."
Molly listened to this outburst as gravely as if I had been threatening to sacrifice a son, did not some incredible good fortune supply a ram caught by his horns in the bushes.
For Piedimulera we left in the afternoon, somewhat buoyed up by the omen of the name. The way led back towards the Alps, up a broad and beautiful valley strewn with evidences of the works for the Simplon railway: embankments, bridges, quarries, and occasional groups of workmen hauling rhythmically on the many ropes of a pile-driver. Presently we swerved from the main road, and crossed the valley bed, obedient to the map, which was our only guide to Piedimulera. We passed one or two romantically placed, ancient villages, each of which I hoped might be our goal; but, as usual in life, the town for which we were bound did not appear as alluring as other towns, where we had no need to stop.
"I feel there will be not so much as the ghost of a long-perished Roman mule in this hamlet," I said despondently, hoping that Molly would contradict me. But she, too, looked anxious, now that the great moment had come, for we were driving into a town, at the mouth of a deep gorge already dusky with purpling shadows, and there was no doubt that it was Piedimulera.
The gloom of the twilight settled upon our spirits, dissimulate as we might, as the car swept into the cobble-paved courtyard of an albergo, a venerable grandfather of a hostelry, old, grim, and forbidding. Out came a large, fair man to welcome us, with calculation in his cold grey eye. He looked to me like a spider in his web, greeting some inviting flies. We broke the ice by asking for coffee, and when we were told that we must have it without milk, as there were no cows within a radius of many miles, I would have staked all my possessions (especially those acquired at Bern) that there would be no such comparatively useless animals as mules or donkeys.
Instinct is seldom wrong. If ever there was nothing in a name, there was nothing in that of Piedimulera, which had evidently been applied in sheer mockery, or because, untold generations ago, the foot of that rare creature, a mule, had been preserved here in a museum. When the landlord found that we did not intend to stop overnight, unless mules were at once forthcoming, he visibly lost interest in us, as inedible insects. He shrugged his shoulders at the bare idea that Piedimulera might shelter such creatures as we were mad enough to desire, and assured us that there was not the least use in trying Domodossola. We had much better spend the night with him, and to-morrow morning go on as best we might to Brig. No? Then he washed his hands of us.
I did not give my treasures to this person: rather would I have burnt all, than picture him battening on my Instantaneous Breakfasts. Molly would have had me keep them, at least until we knew what fate awaited us at Domodossola. The moment I had irrevocably parted with my outfit, bought in happier days, I should find a mule, and how annoyed would I be, she prophesied. But I was adamant. Had I not made a vow? Besides, if I were to find a mule or donkey the moment I had got rid of his paraphernalia, that alone was an inducement to throw the cargo overboard.
On our way to Domodossola, I saw a pretty dark-eyed young woman, with a cherubic baby in her arms, standing in the doorway of a tumble-down cottage. Evidently she was waiting to greet her husband when he should come home, weary with his long day's work. Quickly I made a decision and with the same abruptness I had used in urging Molly to draw before the too attractive shop in Bern, I begged her now to stop. My white elephants were stowed away in separate bundles in the tonneau, where, ever since Lucerne, they had been the cause of cramps and "pins and needles" to the feet of any member of the party who sat there. I ruthlessly collected the lot, and, well-nigh swamped by the load, I carried them to the cottage door, where I laid all at the feet of the young mother. She suddenly became an incarnate point of admiration, and could scarcely believe that I was sane, or that she was not dreaming when I explained my wish to make her a present. If I had stayed an hour, I could not have dissipated her bewilderment, so I left the things to speak for themselves—if she did not take them for infernal machines and throw them into the river.
It was evening when we arrived at Domodossola, and I felt nothing save cold resignation when told emphatically by the concierge of our chosen hotel that my quest was hopeless.
"You will have to go to Brig," he said; and though he was an intelligent and worthy man, I could have smitten him to earth.
"You must abandon me to my fate," I told Jack and Molly. "Il est trop fort. If I'm to walk the face of the earth, I want a pack-mule and a man; and, 'somehow, somewhere, somewhen,' I mean to have them. But you've more than done your duty by me. You can get back to Lucerne from here comfortably, without daring any more mountain passes and fines for law-breaking. Since to Brig I must go, I'll make a virtue of necessity, and walk over the Simplon, to see the tunnel and railway works."
"Walk, if you will," said Molly; "but if I know my Lightning Conductor and myself, we'll see you through to the end, be it bitter or sweet."
"Echo answers," added Jack. "If you want to see things clearly, you must have daylight, and if we wish to escape the arm of the law, we must fly by night, which means that we can't join forces till the journey's end."
"You needn't think we're sacrificing ourselves, for we should love it," Molly capped him. "We're having the jam of adventure spread thick on our bread now."
"Well, then, everything's settled," said Jack, "except the start."
Molly thought a day in Domodossola too much. It was decided, therefore, that they should rest till eleven, and that the motor should be ready at midnight. They could reach Brig between two and three, and being a posting town, the hotel people were sure to be up. I was to start early in the morning, and meet my friends at Brig, after walking over the Pass.
I saw them off, and then plunged fathoms deep into sleep, dreaming of a land flowing with mules and donkeys. At five, I was up, and was surprised to find that the despised Domodossola was a beautiful and interesting old town, with curiously Spanish effects in its shadowy streets, lined with ancient, arcaded houses. I thought to save time and fatigue by taking a carriage to the frontier village of Iselle at the foot of the Pass, and was glad I had done so, for the road was rough and covered inches deep with a deposit of peculiar, grey dust. But things mended when we climbed a hill, turned out of the main valley, and followed the course of the river Diveria into a lateral gorge of the mountains, the real porchway or entrance of the Simplon Pass.
"A Jack-o'-lantern, a fairy fire, A dare, a bliss, and a desire." —BLISS CARMAN.
"Here a great personal deed has room." —WALT WHITMAN.
The further I penetrated into the mountains, the more like a vast engineering workshop did the long Alpine valley become. Yet, curiously enough, instead of destroying romance, this gave a certain majestic romance of its own; the romance of man's struggle to conquer the stupendous forces of Nature with his science. It was as if Vulcan's stithy had been dropped down into a profound ravine of the Alps, and the drone of machinery mingled with the music of the fleeting river—a strange diapason.
On the right of the highroad, the flat mountain face opened a black, egg-shaped mouth at me. I got out of the carriage to approach it, and while I stood peering down the dark throat, as if I were a Lilliputian doctor examining the tongue of Giant Gulliver, I was suddenly clapped upon the shoulder. It flashed into my mind that perhaps it was forbidden to stare at the tunnel-in-making; and turning to defend myself from a lash of red tape, with the adage that "a cat may look at a king," I saw a man I had known years ago smiling at me.
I have a worldly-minded cousin who says that she is always nice to girls, because "you never know whom they may marry." It might be equally diplomatic to be nice to foreigners who are at Oxford with you, because you don't know that they may not become famous engineers, able to show you interesting things when you visit their country. Giovanni Bolzano had been at Balliol with me, studying English, and now it turned out that he was second engineer to the works for the new tunnel. I recalled with poignant regret that Jack Winston and I had once made hay of his room; but evidently he bore no malice, for after saying that he was not surprised to see me, as everybody came this way sooner or later, he offered to show me his tunnel, of which this was the Italian mouth. It had another at Brig, twelve miles away, and boasted the longest throat in the world, but as it was marvellously ventilated, it would never choke in its own smoke, and Bolzano was very proud of the engineering achievement. Having discharged my carriage, I went with him into a workshop, heard the humming of dynamos, and the buzzing of tremendous turbines, actuated by the fall of the river Diveria, and gazed with the fascination of a mouse for a cat at a huge and diabolical fan, driving air into the tunnel. This fearful beast had a house to itself, with a passage down which you could venture like Theseus entering the labyrinth of the Minotaur; but such was the volume of breath which it drew into its mighty lungs that you must use all your strength not to be sucked in and hurled against the shafting; all your self-control not to be confused by its loud, unceasing roar.
Hardly had we come out from this weird place, which would have given Edgar Allan Poe an inspiration for a creepy tale, when Bolzano showed me a relief gang of men getting ready to enter the tunnel, in a train consisting of wooden boxes drawn by a miniature locomotive. This was my chance. I was hurried off to his quarters, helped into rough, miner's clothing, with great boots up to my knees, and given a miner's lamp. Then, joining the eight hundred Italians,—a battalion of the soldiers of Labour,—we got into a box, and set off to relieve eight hundred other such soldiers who for eight hours had toiled in the schisty heart of the mountain.
I felt as if suddenly, between sleeping and waking, I had plunged deep into the dusk of dreamland. We rumbled through a lofty egg-shaped vault, lined with masonry, lighted waveringly, with strange play of shadow, by our many lamps. This phase of the dream seemed to last a long time; and then the train of boxes slowed down, for we had reached the danger-point, a part of the tunnel where the hidden Genii of the Mountain had planned a trap to upset all geological expectations. Having allowed the engineers to penetrate thus far, they had suddenly flooded the tunnel with cataracts of water from fissures in the rock, and had laughed wild, echoing laughter because they had contrived to delay the work for a year, and cause the spending of much extra money.
The dream showed me now a long iron cage, shoring up the crumbling walls of the excavation; and through this cage we crept like a procession of wary mice, suddenly putting on speed at the end, till we reached the tunnel-head, and found another train preparing to go out.
Here the dream flung me into a teeming Inferno of darkness and lost spirits who (spent with eight hours' monotonous toil in this Circle) had dropped asleep, sitting half-naked in the line of boxes which would bear them away to a spell of rest. They had fallen into pathetic attitudes of collapse, some lying back with their mouths open, some resting their heads on folded arms, some drooping on comrades' shoulders.
As our train-load of Activity came to a stand, this other train-load of Exhaustion rumbled slowly away, the smoky lamps glinting on polished, olive-coloured flesh, on hairy arms, and swarthy faces shut to consciousness.
Close to the tunnel-head we alighted, and went on into the dream on foot, the gallery contracting to a few feet in height, where a group of black figures bent over rock-drills which creaked and groaned. I saw the drill-holes filled with dynamite, and retired with the others while the fuse was lighted. I heard from afar off the thunderous detonations as the rock-face was shattered. I saw the debris being cleared away, before the drills should begin to grind again; and the remembrance that, in another rathole on the Swiss side, another party of workers was patiently advancing towards us, in precisely the same way, sent a mysterious thrill through my blood.
"Suppose the two galleries don't meet end to end?" I spoke out my thought.
"But they will," said Bolzano. "Our calculations are precise, and we have allowed for an error of two inches: I do not think there will be more. There is a great system of triangulation across the mountains, and every few months our reckonings are verified. By-and-bye, we shall hear the sound of each other's drills; then, down will come the last dividing wall of rock, and Swiss and Italians will be shaking hands."
I think, in coming out of the dark tunnels and windy galleries, I felt somewhat as Jonah must have felt after he had been discarded in distaste by the whale. The light dazzled my eyes. I could have shouted aloud with joy at sight of the sun. I made Bolzano breakfast with me in the little inn at Iselle, and got upon my way again, at something past noon. The vast turmoil of the growing railway was left behind. It was like putting down a volume of Walt Whitman, and taking up Tennyson.
The Pass had the extraordinary individuality of one face as compared with another. It had not even a family resemblance to the St. Gothard. The air was sweet with the good smell of newly cut wood and resinous pines. There were sudden glimpses of icy peaks, cut diamonds in the sun, seen for a moment, then swallowed up by stealthily creeping white clouds, or caressed by them with a benediction in passing. Thin streaks of cascades on precipitous rocks made silver veinings in ebony. Side valleys opened unexpectedly, and one knew from hearsay that gold mines were hidden there. Treading the road built by Napoleon, I was enveloped in the gloom of the wondrous Gondo Schlucht, to come out into a broad valley,—a green amphitheatre, above which a company of white, mountain gods sat grouped to watch a cloud-fight.
If I had not been heart-broken by the cruelty of Helen Blantock, I should have been almost minded to thank her for sending me here. But then,—I reminded myself hastily when this thought winked at me over my shoulder,—I was stunned still, by my heavy disappointment. I was not conscious to the full of my suffering now, but I should wake up to it by-and-bye, and then it would be awful—as awful as the desolation left by a recent great avalanche whose appalling traces I had just seen.
I refused to be interested in the old Hospice of St. Bernard, or the newer Hospice, built by order of Napoleon, because neither seemed to me the real thing. If I could not see the Hospice of St. Bernard on the Pass of Great St. Bernard, I would not see any other hospices called by his name. If possible, I would have gone by them with my eyes shut; but at the new Hospice the yapping of a dozen adorable puppies in a kennel opposite lured me, and I paused to talk to them. They did not understand my language, and this was disappointing; but if I had not stopped I should have missed a short cut which I half saw, half suspected, dimly zigzagging down the mountain into an extraordinarily deep valley, and tending in the direction of Brig. It would have been a pity to pass it by, for though I often thought myself lost, I eventually caught sight of a town, lying far below, which could be no other than the one for which I was bound. After three hours of fast walking down from the Hospice, I plunged through an old archway into the main street of Brig.
Coming into it, I stopped to gaze up in astonishment at an enormous house which looked to me as big as Windsor Castle. Indeed, to call it a house does not express its personality at all; yet it was hardly magnificent enough for a castle. At each corner was an immense tower, ornamented with a big bulb of copper, like a gigantic and glorified Spanish onion. A beautiful Renaissance gallery, flung across from one tall building to another, lent grace to the otherwise too solid pile, and I guessed that I must have come upon the ancient stronghold and mansion of the famous Stockalper family, still existing and still one of the most important in Switzerland. In the Pass I had seen the towers built by the first Stockalper—that Gaspar who in mediaeval days was called "King of the Simplon"; who protected travellers and controlled the caravan traffic between Italy and Switzerland; now, to see the house which he had founded still occupied by his descendants, fixed more pictorially in my mind the stirring legends connected with the man.
The little town of Brig seemed noisy and gay after the great silence of the Pass. Church bells were ringing, whips were cracking; in the central place there were crowding shops, bright with colour, and lights were beginning to shine out from the windows of the hotels.
I was to meet the Winstons at the Hotel Couronne; and as I ventured to show my travel-stained person in the hall, I was greeted by a vision: Molly in white muslin, dressed for dinner.
"What, you already!" she exclaimed. "You must have come over the Pass by steam or electricity. We didn't expect you for an hour. We've lots to tell you, and oh, I've bought you a sweet revolver, which you are always to have about you, on your walking trip, though Jack laughed at me for doing it. But now, for your adventures."
In a few words I sketched them, and learned that the motor had again pulled wool over the eyes of the law; then Molly must have seen in mine that there was a question which I wished, but hesitated, to ask. If a man may have a beam in his eye, why not a mule?
"We've been interviewing animals of various sorts for you all day," she said. "I've had a kind of employment agency for mules, and have taken their characters and capacities. But——"
"There's a 'but,' is there?" I cut into her ominous pause.
"Well, the nicest beasts are all engaged for days ahead, or else their owners can't spare them for a long trip; or else they're too young; or else they're too old; or else they're hideous. At least, there's one who's hideous, and I'm sorry to say he's the only one you can have."
"'Twas ever thus, from childhood's hour.'"
"But the landlord says there are dozens of mules at Martigny."
"A mere mirage."
"No, he has telephoned. But you'll look at the one here, I suppose, if only as a matter of form? I think he's outside now."
"Let him be brought before me," I said, with the air of a tyrant in a melodrama; and, by the way, I have always thought it would be very pleasant being a tyrant by profession, like Him of Syracuse, for instance. You could do all the things you wanted to do, without consulting the convenience of anybody else, or having it on your conscience that you hadn't.
At this moment Jack appeared. It seemed that he had been putting the mule (the one available mule) through his paces, and the wretched fellow was laughing. "It's not funny, at all," said I, thinking it was the situation which amused him. But Jack explained that it wasn't that. "It's the brute's tail," said he. "When you see it, you'll know what I mean."
I did know, at sight. The organ—if a mule's tail can be called an organ—had mean proportions and a hideous activity which expressed to my mind a base and depraved nature. Had there been no other of his kind on earth, I would still have refused to take this beast as my companion; and after a few moments' feverish discussion, it was arranged that after all we must go through the Rhone Valley to-morrow to Martigny.
But the Rhone Valley, radiant in morning light, heaped coals of fire upon my head. I had maligned perfection. There was all the difference between the country between Brig and Martigny seen from a railway-carriage window, and seen from a motor car, that there is between the back of a woman's head when she is giving you the cut direct, and her face when she is smiling on you.
The Rhone Valley tame! The Rhone Valley monotonous! It was poetry ready for the pen of Shelley, and a scene for the brush of Turner. The little towns sleeping on the shoulders of the mountains, or rising turreted from hardy rocks bathed by the golden river; the peeps up cool lateral valleys to blue glaciers; the near green slopes and distant, waving seas of snowy splendour left a series of pictures in the mind; and best of all was Martigny's tower pointing a slender finger skyward from its high hill.
Late in the afternoon, as the car whirled us into the garden of the Hotel Mont Blanc, we came face to face with two mules. They had brought back a man and a girl from some excursion. The landlord was at the door to receive his guests. Jack, Molly, and I flung the same question at his head, at the same moment. Was the situation as it had been when he telephoned? Could I hire a mule and a man, not for a day or two, but for a long journey—a journey half across the world if I liked?
The answer was that I might have five mules and five men for a journey all across the world if it were my pleasure.
It sounded like a problem in mental arithmetic, but I thanked my stars that there seemed no further need for me to struggle over its solution.
The Making of a Mystery
"There was the secret . . . Hid in . . . grey, young eyes." —ALICE MEYNELL.
"Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more." —WALT WHITMAN.
In my opinion it is a sign of strength rather than of weakness, to change one's mind with a good grace. For my part, I find pleasure in the experience, feeling refreshed by it, as if I had had a bath, and got into clean linen after a hot walk. Changing the mind gives also somewhat the same sensation as waking in the morning with the consciousness that no one on earth has ever seen this day before; or the satisfaction one has on breaking an egg, the inside of which no human eye has beheld until that moment. A change of mind bestows on one for the time being a new Ego; therefore I did not grudge myself my delight in the once despised Rhone Valley. Nevertheless, I was glad that the Mule of Brig had been one with which I could conscientiously decline to associate. My resolve not to take a pack-mule there had become so fixed, that to have uprooted it would have seemed a confession of failure. Besides, the need to go on to Martigny had given an excuse for another day with Jack, Molly, and Mercedes.
I had been as happy as a man whose duty it is to be broken-hearted, may dare to be. But the next morning came at Martigny, and with my bath the news that the five promised men with their five mules awaited my choice.
I had secretly hoped that the day might be mule-less till evening, for in that case Jack and Molly would probably stay on, and I should not be left alone in the world until to-morrow.
However, it was not to be. I gave myself the satisfaction of keeping the mules waiting, on the principle of always doing unto others what they have done unto you; and after a leisurely toilet, I went down to hold the review.
Four men, with four mules, started forward eagerly, jostling each other, at sight of me accompanied by the landlord. But one held back a little, with a modest dignity, as if he were too proud to push himself into notice, or too generous to exalt himself at the expense of others. He was a slim, dark man of middle height, past thirty in age, perhaps, with a look of the soldier in the bearing of his shoulders and head. He had very short black hair; high cheekbones, where the rich brown of his skin was touched with russet; deep-set, thoughtful eyes, and a melancholy droop of the moustache. His collar was incredibly tall and shiny, with turn-down points; he wore a red tie; his thick brown clothes might have been bought ready made in the Edgeware Road; evidently he had honoured the occasion with his Sunday best. While his comrades jabbered together, in patois which flung in a French word now and then, like a sop to Cerberus, he spoke not a word; yet I saw his lips tighten, as he laid his arm over the neck of a small but well-built mule of a colour which matched its master's clothing. The animal rubbed a brown velvet head against the brown waistcoat which, perhaps, covered a fast-beating heart. From that instant I knew that this was my man, and this my mule, as certainly as if they had been tattooed with my family crest and truculent motto: "What I will, I take."
"You've been a soldier, haven't you?" I asked the muleteer in French.
He saluted as he replied that he had, and that for several years he had served a French general, as orderly. His name was Joseph Marcoz, and—he added—he was a Protestant.
"And your mule?" I asked.
"Ah, but his persuasion? He is Protestant, too?" If Joseph had looked puzzled, I should have been disappointed, but a spark of humour lit the gloom of his sombre eye. "Finois is Pantheist, I think you call it, Monsieur. I am persuaded that he has a soul, for which there will be a place in the Beyond; and if he goes there first, I hope that he will be looking out for me."
It seemed a sudden drop, after this preface, to turn to bargaining. The landlord made the break for me, however, when he saw that I had set my mind upon Marcoz and his Finois. It then appeared that Joseph was not his own master, but worked for the real owner of Finois and other mules. The price he would have to ask for such a journey as I proposed was twenty-five francs a day. This would include the services of man and mule, food for the one, and fodder for the other. Without any beating down, I accepted the terms proposed, and the only part of the arrangement left in doubt was the time of starting. It was not eight o'clock, yet already the diligences and private carriages going over the Grand St. Bernard had departed with a jingling of bells and sharp cracking of whips which had first informed me that it was day. With me, it was different, however. Speed was no longer my aim. I would not be in a hurry about arriving anywhere, and when I learned that there were a couple of small towns on the Pass, at either of which I could lie for a night, there seemed no fair excuse for keeping Jack and Molly at Martigny.
As I was wondering when they would wake, that I might consult them on the details of my journey, I glanced up and saw Molly, as fresh as if she had been born with the morning, standing on a balcony just over my head. In her hand was a letter, and as she waved a greeting, something came fluttering uncertainly down. I managed to catch this something before it touched earth, and had inadvertently seen that it was an unmounted photograph, probably taken by an amateur correspondent, when Molly leaned over the railing, with an excited cry. "Oh, don't look. Please, please don't look at that photograph!" she exclaimed.
"Of course I won't," I answered, slightly hurt. "What do you take me for?"
"I know you wouldn't mean to," she answered. "But you might glance involuntarily. You didn't see it, did you?"
Suddenly I was tempted to tease her. "Would it be so very dreadful if I did?"
"Yes, dreadful," she echoed solemnly. "Don't joke. Do please tell me, one way or the other, if you saw what was in the picture?"
"You may set your mind at ease. If it were to save my life, I couldn't tell whether the photograph was of man, woman, boy, girl, or beast; and now I'm holding it face downward."
Molly broke into a laugh. "Good!" she exclaimed. "I'm coming to claim my property, and to look at your new acquisitions. I've been criticising them from the window, and I congratulate you."
A moment later she was beside me, had taken her mysterious photograph, and hidden it between the pages of a letter, covered with writing in a pretty and singularly individual hand. She explained that a whole budget of "mail" had been forwarded to Martigny, in consequence of a telegram sent to Lucerne, and then, as if forgetting the episode, she applied herself to winning the hearts of the man Joseph and the mule Finois.
Presently we were joined by Winston, and I broached the subject of the start. "The idea is," I said, "to begin as I mean to go on, with a walk of from twenty to thirty miles a day, according to the scenery and my inclination. Marcoz thinks that we could pass the night comfortably enough at a place called Bourg St. Pierre, even if we didn't get away from here for an hour or so. Then early to-morrow we would push on for the Hospice, and reach Aosta in the evening."
"It would be a mistake to leave here in the heat of the day, don't you think so?" said Jack. "Much better if we all stopped on, did some sightseeing, and then Molly and I bade you good speed about half-past seven to-morrow morning."
"But, Lightning Conductor, you forget we can't stay. You know—the letters," said Molly, with one of those deep, meaning glances which her lovely eyes had more than once sent Jack, when there was some question as to our ultimate parting. My heart invariably responded to this glance with a pang, as a nerve responds to electricity. She wished to go away with her Lightning Conductor, and leave me at the mercy of a mule. Well, I would accept my lonely lot without complaining, but not without silently reflecting that happy lovers are selfish beings at best.
The forlorn consciousness that I was of superlative importance to no one was heavy upon me. I wanted somebody to care a great deal what became of me, and evidently nobody did. I was horribly homesick at breakfast, and the Winstons' gaiety in the face of our parting seemed the last straw in my burden. Perhaps Molly saw this straw in my eyes, for she looked at me half wistfully for a moment, and then said, "If we weren't sure this walking trip of yours will do you more good than anything else, we wouldn't let you leave us, for we have loved having you. We'll write to you at Aosta, where you will be staying for a couple of days, and give you our itinerary, with lots of addresses. By that time, you too will have made up your mind about your route. You will have decided whether to branch off among the bye-ways, or go straight on south, although you mustn't go too quickly, and get there too early——"
"I don't believe I shall have made up my mind to anything in Aosta," said I gloomily. "I feel that I shall still be unequal to that, or any other mental effort, and what is to become of me, Heaven, Joseph, and Finois alone know."
"Now, isn't it funny, I feel exactly the opposite? Something seems to tell me that at Aosta, if not before, you will, so to speak, 'read your title clear,'" said Molly, with aggravating cheerfulness. "As soon as you've settled what way to take, you must write or wire; and who knows but by-and-bye we shall cross each other's path again, on the road to the Riviera?"
I revived a little. "I don't think you told me that you were going to run down there. Jack was talking about keeping mostly to Switzerland, I thought."
"But Switzerland will turn a cold shoulder upon us, as the autumn comes to spoil its disposition, and we were saying only this morning that it would be fine to make a rush to the Riviera, for a wind up to our trip."
"You see, Molly had a letter——" Jack had begun to speak with an absent-minded air, but suddenly recovered himself. "We don't care to get back to England till November," he hastily went on. "I want Molly to have some hunting and a jolly round of country houses just to see what we can do to make an English winter tolerable. We've got four or five ripping invitations, and in January Mistress Molly herself will have to play hostess to a big house party, at Brighthelmston Park, which the mater and governor have lent us till next season."
If he had wanted to take my mind off an inadvertence, he could scarcely have manoeuvred better, but why the inadvertence (if it had been one) could concern me, it was difficult to imagine.
There was a friendly dispute as to whether Molly and jack should see me off, or whether I should wish them good-bye before starting on my journey; but in the end it was settled that I should be the one to leave first. Perhaps they believed that, if left to myself, I should never start at all; perhaps they wished to add photographs of the mule-party to their Kodak collection, already large; or perhaps they thought only how to make the parting pleasantest for me, since I had no one, and they had each other.
In any case, at ten o'clock all that was left of my store was placed upon the back of Finois, who had the air of ignoring its existence, and mine as well. Had he been a horse, he would at least have deigned to exchange glances with me, friendly or otherwise; but being what he was, he looked everywhere except at me, as if he had been some haughty aristocrat conscientiously snubbing an offensive upstart. Joseph appeared to be the one human being of more importance for Finois than the moving bough of an inedible tree, bush, or shrub, and even Molly could win him to no change of facial expression, though he ate her offered sugar.
There was a pang when I turned my back irrevocably upon my friends, having waved my hand or my panama so often that to do so again would he ridiculous. We were off, Joseph, Finois, and I; there was no getting round it; and as we ambled away along the hot white road, we seemed but small things in the scheme of a busy and indifferent world—mere cards, shuffled by the hands of an expert, for a game in which our destination was unknown.
"Be kind and courteous to this gentleman; hop in his walk and gambol in his eyes." —SHAKESPEARE.
In beginning our tramp, I trudged step for step with Joseph, who had Finois' bridle over his arm, and answered my questions regarding the various features of the landscape. Thus I was not long in discovering that he had a knowledge of the English language of which he was innocently proud. I made some enquiry concerning a fern which grew above the roadside, when we had passed through Martigny Bourg, and Joseph answered that one did not see it often in this country. "It is a seldom plant," said he. "It live in high up places, where it was difficile to catch, for one shall have to walk over rocks, which do not—what you say? They go down immediately, not by-and-bye."
I liked this description of a precipice, and later, when we had engaged in a desultory discussion on politics, I was delighted when Joseph spoke solemnly of the "Great Mights." He had formed opinions of Lord Beaconsfield and Gladstone, but had not yet had time to do so of Mr. Chamberlain, for, said he, "these things take a long time to think about." Fifteen or twenty years from now, he will probably be ready with an opinion on men and matters of the present. He asked gravely if there had not been a great difference between the two long-dead Prime Ministers?
"How do you mean?" I enquired. "A difference in politics or disposition?"
"They would not like the same things," he explained. "The Lord Beaconsfield, par exemple, he would not have enjoyed to come such a tour like this, that will take you high in icy mountains. He would want the sunshine, and sitting still in a beautiful chaise with people to listen while he talked, but Monsieur Gladstone, I think he would love the mountains with the snow, as if they were his brothers."
"You are right," I said. "They were his brothers. One can fancy edelweiss growing freely on Mr. Gladstone. His nature was of the white North. You have hit it, Joseph."
"But I do not see a thing that I have hit," he replied, bewildered, glancing at the stout staff in his hand, and then at Finois, who had evidently not been brought up on blows. It was then my turn to explain; and so we tossed back and forth the conversational shuttlecock, until I found myself losing straw by straw my load of homesickness, and becoming more buoyant of spirit in the muleteer's society.
After the splendours of the Simplon it seemed to rue, as the windings of the Great St. Bernard Pass shut us farther and farther away from Martigny, that this was in comparison but a peaceful valley. It was a cosey cleft among the mountains, with just room for the river to be frilled with green between its walls. There was a look of homeliness about the sloping pastures, which slept in the sunshine, lulled by the song of the swift-flowing Dranse.
The name "Great St. Bernard" had conjured up hopes of rugged grandeur, which did not seem destined to be fulfilled, and at last I confided my disappointment to Joseph. "If Monsieur will wait an all little hour, perhaps he will yet be surprised," he answered, breaking into French. "We have a long way to go, before we come to the best."
We walked briskly, lunched at the dull village of Orsieres; and delaying as short a time as possible, pushed on—indeed, we pushed on much farther than Joseph had expected, when he suggested our sleeping at Bourg St. Pierre. "We might go higher," said he, "before dark, but it would be late before we could reach the Hospice, and there is no place where we could rest for the night after St. Pierre, unless Monsieur would care to stop at the Cantine de Proz."
"What is the Cantine de Proz?" I asked, trudging along the stony road, with my eyes held by a huge snow mountain which had suddenly loomed above the green shoulders of lesser hills, like a great white barrier across the world.
"The Cantine de Proz is but a house, nothing more, Monsieur, in the loneliest and wildest part of the Pass—how lonely, and how wild, you cannot guess yet by what you have seen. The people who keep the house are good folk, and they live there all the year round, even in winter, when the snow is at the second-story windows, and they must cut narrow paths, with tall white walls, before they can feed their cattle. These people sell you a cup of coffee, or a glass of beer, or of liqueur, and they have a spare room, which is very clean. If any traveller wishes to spend a night, they will make him as comfortable as they can. One English gentleman came, and liked the place so well, that he stayed for months, and wrote a book, I have been told. But it is desolate. Perhaps Monsieur would think it too triste even for a night. At St. Pierre there is at least a little life. And the hotel 'Au Dejeuner de Napoleon,' I think it will amuse Monsieur."
"That is an odd name for a hotel," said I.
"You see, Monsieur, it was made famous because of the dejeuner which Napoleon took there on his march with his army of 30,000 across the Pass in the month of May, 1800, and that is the reason of the name. The madame who has the house now, is a grand-daughter of the innkeeper of that day; and she will show you the room where Napoleon breakfasted, with all the furniture just as it was then, and on the wall the portraits of her grand-parents, who waited on the great man."
"At all events, we will rest and have something to eat there," I said. "Then, if it be not too late, we might push on further. I like the idea of the lonely Cantine de Proz."
My opinion of the Pass was changing for the better, before we reached the straggling town of stony pavements, which could not have a more appropriate patron than St. Pierre. True, our road was always narrow, and poorly kept for a great mountain highway; so far, none of the magnificent engineering which impressed one on the Simplon. But here and there dazzling white peaks glistened like frozen tidal waves against the blue, and the Dranse had a particular charm of its own. Joseph said little when I patronised the Pass with a few grudging words of commendation. He had the secretive smile of a man who hides something up his sleeve.
It was five o'clock when we arrived at Bourg St. Pierre, and having climbed a dark and hilly street, closely shut in with houses which age had not made beautiful, Joseph pointed out a neat, white inn, standing at the left of the road.
"That is the 'Dejeuner de Napoleon,'" said he, "and near by are some Roman remains which will interest Monsieur if——"
"By Jove, two donkeys!" I broke in, heedless of antiquities, in my surprise at seeing two of those animals which experience had taught me to look upon as more rare than Joseph's "seldom plant." "Two donkeys in front of the inn. Where on earth can they have sprung from? I would have given a good deal for that sight a few days ago, but now"—and I glanced at the dignified Finois—"I can regard them simply with curiosity."
"I have been over this Pass more than twenty times," said Joseph (who was a native of Chamounix, I had learned), "yet rarely have I met with anes. And see, Monsieur, the woman who is with them. She is not of the country, nor of that part of Italy which we enter below the Pass, at Aosta. It is a strange costume. I do not know from what valley it comes."
"Well," said I, as we drew near to the group in the road outside the hotel, "if that girl, or at any rate her hat, did not come from the Riviera somewhere, I will eat my panama."
Involuntarily I hastened my steps, and Joseph politely followed suit, dragging after him Finois, who seemed to be walking in his sleep. I felt it almost as a personal injury from the hand of Fate, that after my unavailing search for donkeys in a land where I had thought to be forced to beat them off with sticks, I should find other persons provided with not one but two of the creatures.
They were charming little beasts, one mouse-colour, one dark-brown with large, grey-rimmed spectacles, and both animals were of the texture of uncut velvet. The former carried an excellent pack, which put mine to shame; the latter bore a boy's saddle, and the two were being fed with great bread crusts by a bewitching young woman of about twenty-six or -eight, wearing one of the toad-stool hats affected by the donkey-women of Mentone. She looked up at our approach, and having surveyed the pack and proportions of Finois with cold scorn, her interest in our procession incontestably focused upon Joseph. She tossed her head a little on one side, shot at the muleteer an arrow-gleam, half defiant, half coquettish, from a pair of big grey eyes fringed heavily with jet. She moistened full red lips, while a faint colour lit her cheeks, under the deep stain of tan and a tiger-lily powdering of freckles. Then, having seen the weary Joseph visibly rejuvenate in the brief sunshine of her glance, she turned away, and gave her whole attention to the donkeys.
"Hungry, Joseph?" I asked.
He had to bethink himself before he could answer. Then he replied that he had food in his pocket, bread and cheese, and that Finois carried his own dinner. They would be ready to go on, if I chose, or to remain, if that were my pleasure. "It is too early for a final stop, at a place where there can no amusement for the evening," said I. "We had better go on. If you intend to stay outside with Finois, I'll send you a bottle of beer, and you can, if you will, drink my health."
With this I went in, feeling sure that the time of my absence would not pass heavily for Joseph.
This was the hour at which, in England, we would sip a cup of tea as an excuse for talk with a pretty woman in her drawing-room; but having tramped steadily for some hours in mountain air, I was in a mood to understand the tastes of that class who like an egg or a kipper for "a relish to their tea." I looked for the landlady with the illustrious ancestors, and could not find her; but voices on the floor above led me to the stairway. I mounted, passed a doorway, and found myself in a room which instinct told me had been the scene of the historic dejeuner.
It was a low-ceilinged room with wainscoted walls, and at first glance one received an impression of the past. There was a soft lustre of much-polished mahogany, and a glitter of old silver candelabra; I thought that I detected a faint fragrance of lavender lurking in the clean curtains, or perhaps it might have come from the square of ancient damask covering the table, on which a meal was spread.
That meal consisted of chicken; a salad of pale green lettuce and coraline tomatoes; a slim-necked bottle of white wine; a custard with a foaming crest of beaten egg and sugar; and a dish of purple figs. Food for the gods, and with only a boy to eat it—but a remarkable boy. I gazed, and did not know what to make of him. He also gazed at me, but his look lacked the curiosity with which I honoured him. It expressed frank and (in the circumstances) impudent disapproval. Having bestowed it, he nonchalantly continued his conversation with the plump and capped landlady, who was evidently enraptured with him, while I was left to stand unnoticed on the threshold.
Purely from the point of view of the picturesque, there was some excuse for madame's preoccupation. The boy would have delighted an artist, no doubt, though our first interchange of glances gave me a strong desire to smack him.
His panama—a miniature copy of mine—hung over the back of his old-fashioned chair—the one, no doubt, in which Napoleon had sat to eat the dejeuner. Soft rings of dark, chestnut hair, richly bright as Japanese bronze, had been flattened across his forehead by the now discarded hat. This hair, worn too long for any self-respecting, twentieth-century boy, curled round his small head and behind the slim throat, which was like a stem for the flower of his strange little face. "Strange" was the first adjective which came into my mind; yet, if he had been a girl instead of a boy, he would have been beautiful. The delicately pencilled brows were exquisite, and out of the small brown face looked a pair of large, brilliant eyes of an extraordinary blue—the blue of the wild chicory. When the boy glanced up or down, there was great play of dark lashes, long, and amazingly thick. This would have been charming on a girl, but seemed somehow affected in a boy, though one could hardly have accused the little snipe of making his own eyelashes. He wore a very loose-trousered knickerbocker suit of navy-blue; a white silk shirt or blouse, loose also, with a turned-down Byronic collar and a careless black bow underneath. He had extremely small hands, tanned brown, and on the least finger of one was a seal ring. My impression of this youthful tourist was that in age he might be anywhere between thirteen and seventeen, and I was sure that he would be the better for a good thrashing.
"Some rich, silly mother's darling," I said to myself. "Little milksop, travelling with a muff of a tutor, I suppose. Why doesn't the ass teach him good manners?"
This lesson seemed particularly necessary, because the youth persisted in holding the attention of the landlady, who, with a comfortable back to me, laughed at some sally of the boy's. When I had stood for a moment or two, waiting for a pause which did not come, although the brat saw me and knew well what I wanted, I spoke coldly: "Pardon, madame, I desire something to eat," I said in French.
The landlady turned, surprised at the voice behind her.
"But certainly, Monsieur. Though I regret that you have come at an unfortunate time. We have not a great variety to offer you."
"Something of this sort will suit me very well," I replied, feeling hungrily that chicken, salad, custard, and figs were the things which of all others I would choose.
"It is most regrettable, Monsieur, but this young gentleman has our only chicken, unless you could wait for another to be killed, plucked, and made ready for the table."
I shuddered at the suggestion, and did not hide my repulsion. "I must put up with an omelette, then, I suppose I can have that?"
"At any other time Monsieur could have had two, if he pleased, but to-day all our eggs have gone into this custard. The young gentleman ordered his repast by telegraph, and we did our best. As for the figs, he brought them himself; but if Monsieur would have a cutlet of the veau, or——"
"Give me a bottle of wine, and some bread and cheese. I do not like the veau," I said, with the testiness of a hungry man disappointed. As I spoke, my eyes were on the boy, who ate his breast of chicken daintily. Pretty as he was, I should have liked to kick him.
"Little brat," I apostrophised him once more, in my mind. "If he were not a pig, he would ask me to accept half his meal. Not that I would take it. I'd be shot first, so he'd be quite safe; but he might have the decency to offer."
Worse was to come, however. I had not yet plumbed the black depths of the Brat's selfishness.
"Certainly, Monsieur; we have very good cheese," madame assured me soothingly. "If Monsieur would be pleased to step downstairs."
"I should prefer to remain here," I replied. "This is the room, is it not, where Napoleon had his dejeuner?"
"The same, Monsieur, in every particular. But unfortunately, it is for the moment the private sitting-room of this young gentleman, who has made me an extra price to keep it for himself."
The poor old lady suffered manifest distress in breaking this news to me, and even in my evil mood I could not add intentionally to her pain. As for it cause, however, he sat absolutely unmoved. I think, indeed, from the blue light in his great eyes (which was absolutely impish), that the situation whetted his appetite. I did not deign another glance at the little wretch, as I went out, discomfited, but I felt that he was grinning at my back.
In a room below, I had a very creditable meal, which I should have enjoyed more, had my nerves not been jarred to viciousness. In the midst, I heard footsteps running downstairs, and presently outside the door of the salle-a-manger the boy's voice—sweet still with childish cadences, as a boy's is before the change to manhood first breaks, then deepens it.
"If he comes in here, I shall be inclined to throw a rind of cheese at his head," I thought; but he did not beard me in my den. The voice passed away, and presently I heard another, unmistakably that of a woman, giving vent to strange profanities in softest Provencal French. The speaker was apostrophising some person or animal, who was, according to her, the most insupportable of Heaven's creatures; and at last, with calls upon martyred saints, and cries of "Fanny-anny, Fanny-anny," there mingled a scuffling and trotting which soon died away in the distance, leaving stillness.
Soon after, having finished my meal, and paid my bill, I went out to Joseph. I found him alone with Finois. The donkeys and their fair guardian had gone.
"Well," said I, as we got upon our way, "I trust you had an agreeable spell of rest? The lady in the Riviera hat looked promising. If her conversation matched her appearance, you were in luck, and well repaid for taking your refreshment out of doors."
"Monsieur," began Joseph, "have you in English a way of expressing in one word what a man feels when he is both shocked and astonished?"
"Flabbergasted might do, at a pinch," I replied, after deliberation.
"Ah, the good word, 'flabbergasta'! It says much. It is that I am flabbergasta by the young woman of the anes. I was taken, I admit it, Monsieur, by her face, as was but natural. And then I wished to find out, for the satisfaction of Monsieur and myself, how so strange a cavalcade came to arrive upon the St. Bernard Pass.
"I made myself polite. I spoke with praise of the anes, and though my advances were coldly received at first, at the very moment I would in discouragement have ceased my efforts, the young woman changed her front, and seemed willing to talk. She would not answer my questions, except to say that she was of Mentone, and that she had escorted the young gentleman who now employs her on several excursions, a year ago, when he was on the Riviera. That he had sent for her and the two anes to join him by rail, though the expense was great, and that they were travelling for the young gentleman's amusement, and his health, as he had had an illness which has left him still thin, and a little weak. From what place he had come, or to what place they were bound, she would not say. Her own name she told me, when I had asked twice over, but the young gentleman's name she would not give, nor would she even say the country of his birth. It was when I brought up this subject that the—the——"
"The flabbergasting began?"
"Precisely, Monsieur. She abused me for my curiosity, and, oh, Monsieur, the words she used! The profanities! And at the same time her face as mild as a pigeon's! She taunted me with being a Protestant, as if it were a black crime which bred others. Her name, if you would believe it, is Innocentina Palumbo—Innocentina! But her tongue! Monsieur, I listened as if I had been turned to stone. And it was at this time that the young gentleman, of whom she had told me, came out of the inn. He wished to walk, but Innocentina said that he was already too tired, and before he knew what was happening, she had him in the saddle on his ane. So they went off, and where they will pass the night, their saints alone know, for it is all but certain that they will never get such animals as those even as far as the Cantine de Proz."
"They were going in our direction, then?" I said. "We shall pass them on the way presently."
"I do not doubt it, Monsieur, though they had half an hour's start."
"Were the boy and the donkey-woman alone? No tutor with them?"
"Tutor, Monsieur? The poor young gentleman has a tutor and a duenna in Innocentina. I wish him joy of her."
"I wish her joy of him," said I, remembering my wrongs. But soon I forgot them and all other troubles past and present, in surrendering my spirit to the glory of the scene. Joseph had his triumph, for the surprise he had kept up his sleeve was out at last. St. Bernard had me at his feet, and held me there. The wild and gloomy splendour of the Pass struck at my heart, and fired my imagination. Even the Simplon had nothing like this to give. The Simplon at its finest sang a paean to civilisation; it glorified the science of engineering, and told you that it was a triumph of modernity. But this strange, unkempt Pass, with its inadequate road,—now overhanging a sheer precipice, now dipping down steeply towards the wild bed of its sombre river,—this Great St. Bernard, seemed a secret way back into other centuries, savage and remote. I felt shame that I had patronised it earlier, with condescending admiration of some prettinesses. No wonder that Joseph had smiled and held his peace, knowing what was to come. There was the old road, the Roman road, along which Napoleon had led his staggering thousands. There were his forts, scarcely yet crumbled into ruin. I saw the army, a straggling procession of haggard ghosts, following always, and falling as they followed, enacting again for me the passing scene of death and anguish. I was one of the men. I struggled on, because Napoleon needed all his soldiers. Then weakness crushed me, like a weight of iron. A mist before my eyes shut out the opposite precipice with its sparse pines, and flashing waterfalls, the mountain heights beyond, and the merciless blue sky. This was death. Who cared? The echo of thirty thousand feet was in my ears as they passed on, leaving me to die by the roadside, as I had left others before.
I started, and waked from my dream. It was a joyful shock to see Joseph beside me, in the homely clothes which had replaced his "Sunday best"; to see Finois and his pack full of my friendly belongings. But I clung to the comfortable present for a few moments only. The spell of dead centuries had me in its grip. Farther and farther back into the land of dead days, I journeyed with St. Bernard, and helped him found the monastery which the eyes of my flesh had not yet seen. The eyes of my spirit saw the place, the nerves of my spirit felt the chill of its remoteness. And even when I waked again, I could not be sure that I was Montagu Lane, an idle young man of the twentieth century, who had come for the gratification of a whim to this fastness where greater men had ventured in peril and self-sacrifice.
Imagination is the one possession having which no man can be poor, or mean, or insignificant. He can walk with kings, and he can see the high places of the world with seeing eyes, a gift which no money can give; and yet he will have to suffer as those without imagination never can suffer or picture others suffering.
I told myself this, somewhat grandiloquently, and with self-gratulation, as I rubbed shoulders with certain of the world's heroes who had passed along this way; and there was physical relief after a strain, when the precipitous valley widened into billowy pastures lying green at the rugged feet of mountains. Can any sound be more soothing than the tinkle of cow-bells in a mountain pass, as twilight falls softly, like the wings of a brooding bird? It is to the ear what a cool draught of spring water is to thirsty lips. There are verses of poetry in it, only to be reset and rearranged, like pearls fallen from their string; there is a perfume of primroses in it; there is the colour of early dawn, or of fading sunset, when a young moon is rising, curved and white as a baby's arm; there is also the same voice that speaks from the brook or the river running over rocks.
Suddenly we were in the midst of a great herd of cows, which blew out volumes of clover breath upon us, in mild surprise at our existence. They rubbed against us, or ambled away, lowing to each other, and I was surprised to find that, instead of each neck being provided with a bell, as I had fancied from the multitudinous tinklings, one cow only was thus ornamented.
"How was the selection made?" I asked Joseph. "Did they choose the most popular cow, a sort of stable-yard belle, voted by her companions a fit leader of her set; or was the choice guided by chance?" Joseph could not tell me, and I suppose that I shall never know.
The big, lumbering forms crowded so closely round us in the twilight shadows, that now and then, to force a passage, Joseph was obliged to pull a slowly whisking tail, resembling almost exactly an old-fashioned bell-rope. Presently we had made our way past the herd, which was shut from our sight by the curtain of evening, though up on the mountain-tops it was still golden day.
"There," said Joseph, pointing, "is the Cantine de Proz."
The Scraping of Acquaintance
"You shall be treated to . . . ironical smiles and mockings." —WALT WHITMAN.
"Up the hillside yonder, through the morning." —ROBERT BROWNING.
I saw, standing desolate in the basin of mountains, an old house of grey stone, very square, very plain, very resolute and staunch of physiognomy. The windows were still unlighted, and it looked a gloomy home for months of winter cold and snow. Suddenly, as we approached, rather wearily now, a yellow gleam flashed out in an upper window.
"That is the spare room for strangers," said Joseph, and I thought that there was a note of anxiety in his voice.
"Perhaps someone has arrived before us," I remarked. "I hadn't thought of that, as you said so few people ever stopped at the Cantine over night."
"Had you noticed, Monsieur, that after all we never passed the party with the donkeys?" asked my muleteer.
"I had forgotten them."
"I had not, but it was Monsieur's pleasure to go slowly; to stop for the views, to look at the ruined torts, and to trace the old road. We gave them time to get far ahead. I was always watching, but never saw them. The anes had more endurance than I thought, and as for that Innocentina, she is a daughter of Satan; she would know no fatigue."
"It would be like that little brat to gobble up the one spare room of the Cantine as he did the one chicken of the 'Dejeuner,'" I muttered. "But we shall see what we shall see."
We went on more rapidly, and soon arrived at the bottom of a steep flight of stone steps which led up to the door of the Cantine. A man came forward to greet us—a fine fellow, with the frank and lofty bearing of one whose life is passed in high altitudes.
"Can we have supper and accommodation for the night at your house?" I asked.
"Supper, most certainly, and with pleasure," came the courteous answer, "though we have only plain fare to offer. But the one spare room we have for our occasional guests, has just been taken by a young English or American gentleman. The woman who drives the two donkeys with which they travel, will have a bed in the room of my sister, and we could find sleeping place of a sort for your muleteer; but I fear we have no way of making Monsieur comfortable."
I was filled with rage against the wretch who had robbed me of a decent meal, and would now filch from me a night's rest.
"We have walked a long way," I said, "and are tired. We might have stopped at St. Pierre, but preferred to come on to you. It is now too dark to go back, or go on. Surely there are two beds in your spare room, and as you keep an inn, and pretend to give bed and board to travellers, you are bound to arrange for my accommodation."
"The young monsieur pays for the two beds in the spare room, in order to secure the whole for himself alone," replied the landlord. "Not expecting any other guests, we agreed to this; but the youth is perhaps a countryman of yours, and rather than you should go further, or spend a night of discomfort, he will probably consent to let you share the room."
"He shall consent, or I will know the reason why," I said to myself fiercely; but aloud I merely answered that I would be glad of a few minutes' conversation with the young gentleman.
My host led me to the house door, introduced me to a handsome sister, who was my hostess, explained to her the situation, with the view of it we had arrived at, and descended to show Joseph where to shelter Finois.
My landlady said that she would put the case to the occupant of the spare room, who was already in his new quarters, preparing for supper, but I persuaded her that it would be well for me to be on the spot, and add my arguments to hers. We went upstairs, and in a dark passage plunged suddenly into a pool of yellow light, gushing from a half-open door. I hurried forward, step for step with my guide, lest the door should be shut in my face before I could reach it. Over my hostess' shoulder, I saw a bare but neat interior; a "coffin" bed, a white-washed wall, and an uncarpeted floor, Mademoiselle Innocentina Palumbo sitting upon it, tailor-fashion, engaged in excavating a large, dark object from a ruecksack. In front of her stood the Brat, deeply interested in the operation, his curly head bent, his childish little hands on his hips.
He was talking and laughing gaily; but at the sound of footsteps in the passage he glanced up, and, seeing me, stared in haughty surprise, which tipped the scales towards anger.
"Here is a monsieur who is belated on the Pass, and begs" (this was hardly the way in which I would have put it) "that he may be allowed to share your room," explained our landlady.