"Share my room!" repeated the Brat, so dumfounded at the simple statement that he spoke in English. Now I knew that he was a countryman, not of mine, but of Molly's, and I wished that she were here to deal with him. "I have never heard anything so—so ridiculous."
"Really," said I, assuming an air I had found successful with freshers in good old days of under-grad-dom (Molly called it my "belted hearl" manner), "really, I fail to see anything ridiculous in the proposal. This is an inn, which professes to accommodate travellers. I have a right to insist upon a bed."
To my intense irritation Innocentina giggled. The Brat did not laugh, but he grew rosy, like a girl. Even his little ears turned pink, under his absurd mop of chestnut curls. "You have no right to insist upon mine," retorted he, in the honey-sweet contralto which tried in vain to make of a pert imp, an angel.
"You cannot sleep in two," said I.
"That is my affair, since I have agreed to pay for them."
"I contend that you cannot pay for both, since one is legally mine, by the laws protecting travellers," I argued truculently, hoping to frighten the rude child, though I should have been sore put to it to prove my point.
"I have always heard that possession is nine points of the law," said he, impudent and apparently unintimidated. "This is my room, every hole and corner of it, and if you try to intrude, I shall simply sit up and yell all night, and throw things, so that you will not get an instant's sleep. I swear it."
Then I lost my temper. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," I exclaimed. "I wonder where you were brought up?"
"Where big boys never bully little ones."
"Of all the selfish, impertinent brats!" I could not help muttering.
"If I'm a brat, you're a brute, sir. You have only to glance at the dictionary to see which is worse."
He looked so impish, defying me, like a miniature Ajax, that with all the will in the world to box his ears, I burst out laughing.
Checking my mirth as soon as I could, however, I covered its inappropriateness with a steely frown. "I do not need to glance at the dictionary to see that you would be a detestable room-mate," said I, "and on second thoughts I prefer to sleep quietly in the stable rather than press my claim here." With this, I turned on my heel, not giving the enemy time for another volley, and stalked downstairs, followed, I regret to say, by Innocentina's ribald laughter.
Almost immediately I was rejoined by the handsome landlady, who, profuse in her regrets, though she had understood no word of what had passed, attempted to console me with the promise of a bed in the salle-a-manger. Meanwhile, if I desired to wash, her brother would superintend my ablutions.
Over those rites (which were duly performed at a pump, while the little wretch upstairs wallowed in the luxury of a basin almost as large as my hat), I draw a veil. By the time that they were finished, and I was shining with yellow kitchen soap, having been unable to make use of my own in the circumstances, supper was ready. I walked sulkily into the room, which later would be transformed into my bedchamber, and to my annoyance saw the Brat already seated at the table. I had fancied that his conscience would counsel supping privately in the room he had usurped, but this imp seemed to have been born without a sense of shame. Thanks to him, I had not even been able to give myself a clean collar, as it had not been possible to open the mule-pack and improvise a dressing-room in the neighbourhood of the pump. But he—he, the usurper, he, the guilty one—had changed from his low-necked shirt and blue serge jacket and knickers into a kind of evening costume, original, I should say, to himself, or copied from some stage child, or Christmas Annual.
He did not speak to me, nor I to him, though, as I sat down in the chair placed for me at the opposite end of the table, I caught a sapphire gleam from the brilliant eyes, which burned so vividly in the little brown face.
There came an omelette. It was passed to me. Maliciously, I selected the best bit from the middle. The boy took what was left. Veal followed, in the form of cutlets, two in number. A glance showed me that one was mostly composed of bone and gristle. I helped myself to the other. Revenge was mine at last, though to enjoy it fully I must have a peep at the enemy, to make sure that he felt and understood his righteous punishment.
But life is crowded with disappointments. The foe was looking incredibly small, and young, and meek, a puny thing for a man to wreak his vengeance on. With long lashes cast down, making a deep shadow on his thin cheeks, he sat wrestling with his portion, from which the cleverest manipulation of knife and fork was powerless to extract an inch of nourishment. As he gave up the struggle at last, with unmoved countenance, and not even a sigh of complaint, my heart failed me. I felt that I had snatched bread from the mouth of starving infanthood. Had not Joseph learned from Innocentina that the boy had lately recovered from a severe illness? Unspeakable brat that he was, and small favour that he deserved at my hands, I resolved that he should have the best of the next dish when it came round.
This good intention, however, went to supply another stone in that place which seems ever in need of repaving. Cheese succeeded the veal, a well-meaning but somewhat overpowering cheese, and neither the Brat nor I encouraged it. It was borne away, intact, and after a short delay appeared a dish of plums, with another of small and attractive cakes, evidently imported from a town.
I saw the boy's eye brighten as it fell upon the cakes. He glanced from them to me, as I was offered my choice, and said hastily: "There is one cake there which I want very much. I suppose if I tell you which it is, you will eat it."
"There is also only one which I care for," said I. "I wonder if it's the same?"
"Probably," said the boy. "If you take it, there isn't another which I would be found dead with in my mouth, on a desert island. And I haven't had much dinner."
"I had to wash under the pump," said I. "Still, greatness lies in magnanimity. You shall choose your cake first; but remember, you cannot have it, and eat it, too; so make up your mind quickly which is better."
"I always thought that a stupid saying," remarked the Brat, as he helped himself to a ginger-nut with pink icing. "I have my cake, and when I have eaten it, I take another."
"Your experience in life has been fortunate," I replied, contenting myself with the second-best cake. "But it has not been long. When you are a man——"
"A man! I would rather die—young than grow up to be one."
"Indeed?" I exclaimed, surprised at this outburst.
"I hate men."
"Ah, perhaps then, your experience has not been as fortunate in men as in cakes."
"No, it hasn't. It has been just the opposite."
"One would say, 'Thereby hangs a tale.'"
"There does. But it is not for strangers."
"I'm not a lover of after-dinner stories. Here comes the coffee. Luckily, there's plenty for us both. Will you have a cigarette?"
"A cigar, then?"
"I don't smoke."
"Ah, some boys' heads won't stand it. I'm ashamed to say that I smoked at fourteen. But perhaps you're not yet——"
"I will change my mind and have a cigarette, since you are so obliging."
"Sure you won't regret it?"
"Quite sure, thank you."
"They're rather strong."
"I'm not afraid."
He took a cigarette from my case, and smoked it daintily. Whether it were my imagination, or whether a slight pallor did really become visible under the sun-tan on the velvet-smooth face, I am not certain: but at all events he rose when nothing was left between his fingers save an ash clinging to a bit of gold paper, and excused himself with belated politeness.
Not long after, my bed was made up on the floor, and I slept as I fancy few kings sleep.
Strange; not then, or ever, did I dream of Helen.
* * * * *
The voice of Finois or some near relative of his roused me at dawn. I remembered where I was, whither bound, and sleep instantly seemed irrelevant. I scrambled up from my lonely couch, went to the open window, which was a square of grey-green light, and looked out at the mountain walls of the valley basin.
The day was not awake yet, but only half conscious that it must awake. There was the faint thrill of mystery which comes with earliest dawn, as though it were for you alone of all the world, and no one else could find his way down its dim labyrinths. But even as I looked, there came a movement near the house, and I saw the stalwart figure of the landlord shape itself from the shadows. Other forms were stirring too, the stolid forms of cows, and those of two sturdy little ponies, which were being turned into a pasture.
It occurred to me that I could not do better than get through my toilet, and, if Joseph and Finois were of the same mind, make an early start. I thought that if I could reach the Hospice before all the gold of sunrise had boiled over night's brim, I should have a picture to frame in memory.
At bedtime they had given me a wooden tub such as laundresses use, and filled it for my morning bath. I had my own soap, and a great, clean, coarse dish-towel of crash or some such material. Never before was there a bath like it, with the good smell of pinewood of which the tub was made, and the tingle of the water from a mountain spring. I revelled in it, and as I dressed could have sung for pure joy of life, until I remembered that I was a jilted man, and this tour a voyage of consolation.
"You are miserable, you know." I informed my reflection in a small, strange-coloured glass, which allowed me to shave my face in greenish sections. "It is a kind of madness, this spurious gaiety of yours."
In half an hour I was out of the house, and found Joseph feeding Finois. They were both prepared to leave at ten minutes' notice, and when the two human creatures of the party had been refreshed with crusty bread and steaming coffee, the procession of three set forth. As for the boy, the donkeys and their guardian, as far as I knew they were still sleeping the sleep of the unjust.
If the Pass had been glorious in open day, and by falling twilight, it was doubly wonderful in this mystic dawn-time before the lamp of the rising sun had lit the valley. The green alps where the cattle pasture were faintly musical, far and near, with the ringing of unseen bells, and the air was vibrant with the rush and whisper of waters. As the shadows melted in the crucible of dawn, and an opaline high trembled on the dark mountain-tops that towered round us, I saw marvels which either had not existed last night, or I had been dull clod enough to miss them.
Fairy wild-flowers such as I had never seen studded the rocks with jewels of blue and gold, and rose, and little silver stars; and there were some wonderful, shining things of creamy grey plush, suggesting glorified thistles.
We walked through the Valley of Death, where many of Napoleon's men had perished; and the first rays of sunrise touched the tragic rocks with the gold of hope. Up, up beyond the alps and the sparse pine-trees we climbed, until we came to the snowline, and passed beyond the first white ledge, carved in marble by the cold hand of a departed winter. Down through a gap in the mountains streamed an icy blast, and I had to remind myself, shivering, that this was August, not December. The wind tore apart the fabric of lacy cloud which had been looped in folds across the rock-face, like a veil hiding the worn features of some aged nun, and showed jagged mountain peaks, towering against a sky of mother-o'-pearl. Suddenly, after a steep ascent, we saw before us a tall, lonely mass of grey stone, built upon the rock. Behind it the sun had risen, and fired to burnished gold the still lake which mirrored the Hospice and its dark wall of mountains, seamed with snow.
The impression of high purity, of peace won through privation, and of nearness to Heaven itself, was so strong upon me, that I seemed to hear a voice speaking a benediction.
A Shadow of Night
"This villain, . . . He dares—I know not half he dares— But remove him—quick!" —ROBERT BROWNING.
So early was it still, I feared we had come before the brotherhood were astir to receive visitors; but as I looked up at the great, grey, silent building, the noble head of a magnificent St. Bernard dog appeared in the doorway, at the top of steep stone steps. There could not have been a more appropriate welcome to this remote dwelling of a devoted band; and when the dog, after gazing gravely at the newcomers, vanished into darkness, I knew that he had gone in to tell of our arrival. I was right, too, for once within, he uttered a deep bell-note, more sonorous and more musical than lies in the throats of common dogs, and was answered by a distant baying. One could not say that these majestic animals "barked." There was as indisputable a difference between an ordinary bark, and the sound they made, as between the barrel instrument played in the streets, and a grand cathedral organ.
Joseph had visited the Hospice many times, and knew the etiquette for strangers. He bade me go in, and ring the bell at the grille, unless I should meet one of the monks before reaching it. I mounted the steps, entered the wide doorway which had framed the dog's head, and found myself in a vast, dusky corridor, resonant with strange echoings, and mysterious with flitting shadows, which might be ghosts of the past, or live beings of the present. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I saw that there were numerous persons in this great hall: tall monks in flowing robes of black, beggars come to solicit alms or breakfast; and dogs, many dogs, who crowded round me, with a waving of huge tails, and a gleaming of brown jewelled eyes in the dusk. I did not need to ring the bell of the iron gate beyond which, according to Joseph, no woman has ever passed. One of the monks came to me—a tall, spare young man with a grave face, soft in expression, yet hardened in outline by a rigorous life and exposure to extreme cold. He gave me welcome in French, with here and there an interpellation of "Down, Turk," "Be quiet, Jupiter!" Would I like breakfast, he asked; and then—yes, certainly—to see the chapel, the bibliotheque, the monastery museum, and the Alpine garden? There would be plenty of time for this, and still to reach Aosta. Another monk was called, and an introduction effected. I was taken into a handsomely decorated refectory, where I opened my eyes in some astonishment at sight of the Imp, drinking coffee from a shallow bowl nearly as big as his childish head. Innocentina was no doubt at this moment shocking Joseph by some new depravity, in the salle-a-manger where humbler folk were entertained with the same hospitality as their (so called) betters.
The Brat set down his bowl, and saw me, as I subsided into a chair on the opposite side of the long, narrow table. His face flushed, and the brilliant blue eyes clouded, but he deigned to acknowledge our acquaintance with a slight bow.
"I didn't suppose you would have started yet," said I.
"I thought the same thing about you," he retorted. "We got off very quietly from the Cantine——"
"Ah, you wished to steal a march on me," I broke in, "But really, my young friend, you need not have feared that I should impose myself upon you as a travelling companion. My one object in making this excursion is, if not to enjoy my own society, at any rate to experiment with it, therefore——"
"I have two objects in making mine," the boy interrupted. "One is to avoid men; the other is to find materials for writing a book, with no men in it—only places."
"It will not be owing to me, if you fail in the former," said I. "As for the latter, naturally it will depend upon yourself. What shall you call it—'A Chiel takkin' Notes' or 'In Search of the Grail'?"
He blushed vividly. "I haven't decided on the name yet, but it can't matter to you, as I do not expect you to buy the book when it comes out; nor need you be afraid that you will figure in the pages. If I were to call my book 'In Search of—anything,' it would be, 'In Search of Peace.'"
With this, the strange child rose from the table, and bowing, departed, leaving me lost in wonder at him. He was but an infant, and an impertinent infant at that; yet suddenly I had had a glimpse through the great sea-blue eyes, of a soul, weary after some tragic experience. At least this was the impression which flashed into my mind, with the one look I surprised before lashes hid its secret; but in a moment I was laughing at myself. Ridiculous to have such a thought in connection with a slip of a boy, seventeen at most! I lingered over my breakfast, so that the Brat have finished his sightseeing and got away, before my tour of the Hospice began.
He and I had had the table to ourselves at first, but I sat so long that others came in, evidently persons who had spent the night at the monastery. There was a Russian family, of so many daughters that I wondered their parents had found names for them all; a couple of German women in plaid blouses so terrible that they set me speculating. Had the material been chosen by their husbands, with the view of alienating all masculine admiration, as a Japanese girl, when married, blackens her teeth? Or had the ladies inflicted the frightful things upon themselves, by way of penance for some grievous sin? I should have liked to ask, especially as one of the wearers was very pretty, with a large, madonna loveliness. But under my dreaming eyes, she began eating honey with her knife, and I sprang from the table hastily. As I paused, I heard two stolid Cockneys asking each other why the—dickens they had come to this "beastly, cold, God-forsaken hole, with nothing but a lot of ugly mountains to see. There was better sport in Oxford Street." I should not have considered it murder if I had killed them where they sat, but I refrained, rather than soil my hands. And after all, if a primrose on a river's brim, but a yellow primrose was to them, what did it matter to me?
I visited the bibliotheque, which was haunted by a fragrance intoxicating to booklovers, of dead centuries, leather bindings, and parchment. I saw the piano given by the King when he was Prince of Wales; the fine collection of coins and early Roman remains found in the neighbourhood of the monastery; I dropped a louis into the box of offerings in the chapel, and then was taken by a mild-eyed, frail-looking monk to see some of the rooms allotted to guests at the Hospice. Seeing them, I was inclined to wish that I had pushed on through the darkness last night, and reached this mountain-top to sleep. I liked the wainscoted walls, the white, canopied beds, but most of all, I liked the deep-set windows with their view of the silent lake, asleep in the bosom of the mountains, and dreaming of the sky. On most of the walls were votive offerings in the shape of pictures, sent to the monks by grateful visitors in far-off countries. One was an engraving which had adorned the nursery in my youth, and had been a never-failing source of curiosity to me. It was Gustave Dore's "Christian Martyrs," and I had once been deprived of pudding at the nursery dinner, because I had remarked (with irreverence wholly unintentional) that one of the lions seemed ill, and anxious to "climb up the wall and get away from the nasty martyrs." Thus it is that children are misunderstood by their elders! and now, as I gazed at the same picture on the monastery wall, I felt again all the old, impotent rebellion against injustice and misplaced power.
Later, I wandered through the pathetically interesting Alpine garden, carefully kept by the monks; and then, sure that by this time the Brat and his cavalcade must be far on their way, I started, with Joseph and Finois, to stroll down the Pass towards Aosta.
I had promised Jack and Molly to tell them in my letters, whether it would be possible for them, with a motor, to go by some of the routes which I chose. Over the St. Bernard from Martigny to the Hospice they could not have ventured, even in the stealthy, fly-by-night manner in which they had "done" the St. Gothard and the Simplon; for on the St. Bernard the road was always narrow, often stony and dangerous. Beyond, on the other side, even carriages cannot yet pass, descending to Aosta, though in another year the new road will be finished. As it is, for many a generation pilgrims from the Hospice to Italy have been obliged to go down as far as the mountain village of St. Rhemy either on foot or mule-back; thus there was no hope for Mercedes there.
I went swinging down the steep and winding path, my heart chanting a psalm to the mountains. Mountains like cathedrals, with carved, graceful spires; mountains like frozen waves left by some great sea when the world was chaos; mountains like leaning towers of Pisa; mountains like sentinel Titans; mountains silver-grey; mountains dark-red. The "Pain de Sucre" was strangest of all in form, perhaps, and Joseph distressed me much by remarking guilelessly that it, and other white shapes at which he pointed, looked exactly like frosted wedding-cakes. It was true; they did; but they looked like nobler things also, and I resented having so cheap a simile put into my head.
With every step the way grew more glorious. This was an enchanted land. I could hardly believe that thousands of travellers had seen it before, and would again. I felt as if I had fallen Sindbad-like, into a valley undiscovered by man; and, like Sindbad's valley, this sparkled to my dazzled eyes with countless gems. Not all cold, white diamonds, like his, but gems of every colour. The rocks through which our path was cut, glowed with rainbow hues, like different precious metals blended. This effect struck me at first (in the brilliant sunshine which alone kept me from being nipped with cold) as puzzling, but in a moment I had solved the "jewel mystery" of the mountains. The rocks were of porphyry, and marble, and granite, spangled with mica; and over all spread in patches a lichen of rose, and green, and yellow, like chipped rubies and emeralds among gold-filings.
So wild and splendid was the scene, composed and painted by a peerless Master, that I slackened my pace, reluctant to leave so much splendour behind; but despite all delaying, we came after a time down to tree-level. The landscape changed; the diamond spray of miniature cataracts dashed over high cliffs, among balsamic pine forests; the sunshine brought out the intense green of moss and fern. We met porters struggling up the height with luggage on their backs, and fat women riding depressed mules. It was very mediaeval, and I had the sensation of having walked into a picture—round the corner of it, into the best part which you know must be there, though it can't be seen by outsiders.
It took us an hour and a half to walk the eleven kilometres down to St. Rhemy, where we lunched well, and drank a sparkling wine of the country which may have been meretricious, but tasted good. There was a douane, for we had now passed out of Switzerland into Italy, and my mule-pack was examined with curiosity; but why I should have been questioned with insistence as to whether I were concealing sausages, I could not guess, unless a swashbuckling German princeling who married into our family eight generations ago, was using my eyes for windows at the time.
I need not have feared that the best of the journey would be over at St. Rhemy, for the road (which broadened there, and became "navigable" for motor cars as well as horse-drawn vehicles), wound down still among stupendous mountains capped with snow, jagged peaks of dark granite, and purple porphyry which glowed crimson in contrast with the dazzling snow.
We did not leave St. Rhemy till long past one, and as we descended upon lower levels the sun grew hot. More than once I called a halt, and we had a delicious rest under a tree in some exquisite glade a little removed from the roadside. It was during one of these, while Finois cropped an indigestible branch, that Joseph opened his heart, and told me his life's history. It had been more or less adventurous, and it had held a tragedy, for Joseph had loved, and the fair had jilted him on the eve of their marriage, for a prosperous baker. This fellow-feeling (for had we not both been thrown over for tradesmen?) made me wondrous kind towards Joseph; and when I had drawn from him the fact that his great ambition was to own three donkeys, and start in business for himself, I secretly determined to see what could be done towards forwarding this end.
We did not hurry, and while we were still far above Aosta, the shadows lengthened and thinned, like children who have grown too fast. We exchanged chestnuts for pines, and the pure ethereal blue of Italy burned in the sky. Everywhere was rich abundance of colour. The green of trees and grass was luscious; even the shadows were of a translucent purple. Below us the valley of Aosta lay, so dreamily lovely, so peaceful, that one could imagine there only happiness and prosperity.
I remarked this to Joseph, and he smiled his melancholy smile. "It is beautiful," he said, "and when you are down at the bottom, you will not be disappointed in the country. But for happiness? it is no better than elsewhere. Wait till you see the cretins; there is a cretin in almost every family. And not long ago there was a dreadful murder in the neighbourhood of Aosta. The criminal has not yet been caught. He is supposed to be hiding somewhere in the mountains, and the police cannot find him. There is a printed notice out, warning people to beware of the murderer—so I read in a newspaper not long ago and I have heard that the inhabitants of all these little hamlets we see here and there, dare not go from village to village after dark, for fear of being attacked."
"Then, if we should happen to be belated, we might have an adventure?" I said.
"Indeed, it is not at all unlikely, Monsieur. No doubt the man is desperate, and if he saw a chance to get a change of clothing, a mule, and some money, he might risk attacking even two travellers, from behind. But we shall arrive at Aosta before dark, and I am afraid——"
"I'll warrant you're not afraid of danger."
"That we shall get no such sport, Monsieur."
Even as he spoke there came, with the wind blowing up from the valley, a loud, long-drawn shriek of fear or distress, uttered by a woman. We looked at each other, Joseph and I, and then without a word set off running down the hill, in the direction of the cry. Again it came, "A moi-a moi!" We could hear the words, now, and then a wild, inarticulate scream.
I bounded down the winding white road, where the evening shadows lay, and Joseph followed, somehow dragging Finois—at least, I am sure that he would not have left his beloved beast behind,—and so at last we turned a sharp bend of the path, thickly fringed with a dense wood, where suddenly Innocentina sprang almost into my arms. She ran to me, blindly, not seeing who it was, but knowing by instinct that help was at hand. "A robber—a murderer!" she panted. "Oh, save—" and then, I think, she fainted.
I have a vague recollection of tossing her to Joseph, and plunging into the dim wood, where something moved, half-hidden by the crowding trees. It was the donkeys I saw at first, and then I came full upon a man, dressed all in the brown of the tree trunks, so that at a distance he would not be seen among them, in the dusk. He had the ruecksack I had noticed at the Cantine de Proz in one hand, and with the other he had just drawn a knife from the belt under his coat. On the ground crouched the Boy, shielding his bowed face with a slim, blue-serge arm.
"My little body is aweary of this great world." —SHAKESPEARE.
This was the tableau photographed on my retina as I sprang forward; but I drew the revolver which had occasioned Winston's mirth when Molly gave it to me at Brig, and in an instant the picture had dissolved. The man in brown dropped the ruecksack, and ran as I have never seen man run before—ran as if he wore seven-leagued boots. My revolver was not loaded, and all the cartridges were among my shirts and collars, on Finois' back, therefore I could pursue him with nothing more dangerous than anathemas, unless I had deserted the boy, who seemed at first glance to be almost as near fainting as Innocentina.
Reluctantly letting the man go free, I bent over the little figure in blue, still on its knees. "Are you hurt?" I asked in real anxiety, such as I had not thought it possible to feel for the Brat.
"No—only my arm. He wrung it so. And perhaps I have twisted my knee. I don't know yet. He pushed me back, and I fell down."
I lifted him up and supported him for a moment, he leaning against me, the colour drained from cheeks and lips. But suddenly it streamed back, even to his forehead; and raising his head from my shoulder where it had lain for a few seconds, he unwound himself gently from my arm. "I'm all right now, thank you awfully," he said. "I believe you have saved my life and Innocentina's. You see, we fought with the man for our things; and when he saw that he couldn't steal them without a struggle, he whipped out a knife and—and then you came. Oh, he was a coward to attack two—two people so much weaker than himself, and then to run away when a stronger one came!"
I kept Joseph's story to myself, and hoped that the boy had not heard it. Perhaps, after all, this lurking beast of prey had not been the murderer in hiding. The place was desolate, and evening was falling. Some tramp, or thievish peasant, taking advantage of the murder-scare, might easily have dared this attack; and when I glanced at the picnic array under a tree near by, I was even less surprised than before at the thing which had happened.
The mouse-coloured pack-donkey had been denuded of his load, and the most elaborate tea basket I had ever seen (finer even than Molly's) was open on the ground. If the cups, plates and saucers, the knives, spoons and forks, were not silver, they were masquerading hypocrites; and I now discovered that the large, dark object which I had seen Innocentina putting into the ruecksack (at this moment half on, half off) was a very handsome travelling bag. It was gaping wide, the mouth fixed in position with patent catches, and it lay where the disappointed thief had flung it, tumbled on its side, with a quantity of gold and crystal fittings scattered round about. On the gold backs of the brushes, and the tops of the bottles, was an intricate monogram, traced in small turquoises.
"By Jove!" I exclaimed. "Do you travel with these things? What madness to spread them out in the woods by an unfrequented mountain road! That is to offer too much temptation even to the honest poor."
"I know," said the boy meekly. "It was stupid to picnic in such a place, but we had come fast" (with this he had the grace to look a little shame-faced, knowing that I knew why he had come fast) "and we were tired. It was so beautiful here, and seemed so peaceful that we never thought of danger, at this time of day. We had just begun to pack up our things to move on again, when there was a rustling behind us, the crackling of a branch under a foot, and that wretch sprang out. I was frightened, but—I hate being a coward, and I just made up my mind he shouldn't have our things. Innocentina screamed, and I struck at the man with the stick she uses to drive Fanny and Souris. Then he got out his knife, and Innocentina screamed a good deal more, and—I don't quite know what did happen after that, till you came."
"Well, I'm thankful I was near," I said. "And I must say that, though it was foolhardy to make such a display of valuables, you were a plucky little David to defend your belongings against such a Goliath. I admire you for it."
The boy flushed with pleasure. "Oh, do you really think I was plucky?" he asked. "Everything was so confused, I wasn't sure. I'd rather be plucky than anything. Thank you for saying that, almost as much as for saving our lives. And—and I'm dreadfully sorry I called you a—brute, last night."
"It was only because I called you a brat. I fully deserved it, and we'll cry quits, if you don't mind. Now, I'd better see how the fainting lady is, and then I'll help you get your things together. How are the knee and arm?"
"Nothing much wrong with them after all, I think," said the boy, limping a little as he walked by my side back to the road, where I had left Innocentina with Joseph.
We had taken but a few steps, when they both appeared, the young woman white under her tan, her eyes big and frightened. She was herself again, very thankful for so good an end to the adventure, and volubly ashamed of the weakness to which she had given way. In the midst of her explanations and enquiries, however, I noticed that she took time now and then to throw a glance at my muleteer, not scornful and defiant, as on the day before, but grateful and mildly feminine. In conclave we agreed to say nothing in Aosta of the grim encounter, lest our lives should be made miserable by gendarmes and much red tape. But Joseph, less diplomatic than I, had not scrupled to seize the moment of Innocentina's recovery to pour into her ears the story of the escaped criminal, and the excitement in which he had plunged the neighbouring country. She was anxious to hurry on as quickly as possible, lest night should overtake her party on the way, and, still pale and tremulous, she sprang eagerly to the work of gathering up the scattered belongings. While she and Joseph put the tea-basket to rights, the boy and I rearranged the gorgeous fittings of the bag, and discovered that not even a single bottle-top was missing.
"What a burden to carry on a donkey's back!" I laughed. "You are a regular Beau Brummel."
"Why not?" pleaded the boy. "I like pretty things, and this is very convenient. It is no trouble for Souris. When the bag is in the ruecksack, no one would suspect that it is valuable. I have carried all this luggage so, ever since Lucerne, and never had any bother before."
"What, you too started from Lucerne?"
"Yes. I had Innocentina and the donkeys come up from the Riviera, to meet me there. We have been a long time on the way—weeks: for we have stopped wherever we liked, and as long as we liked. Until to-day we haven't had a single real adventure. I was wishing for one, but now—well, I suppose most adventures are disagreeable when they are happening, and only turn nice afterwards, in memory."
"Like caterpillars when they become butterflies. But look here, my young friend David, lest you meet another Goliath, I really think you'd better put up with the proximity (I don't say society) of that hateful animal, Man, as far as Aosta. Joseph and I will either keep a few yards in advance, or a few yards in the rear, not to annoy you with our detestable company, but——"
"Please don't be revengeful," entreated the ex-Brat. "You have been so good to us, don't be un-good now. I suppose one may hate men, yet be grateful to one man—anyhow, till one finds him out? I can't very well find you out between here and Aosta, can I?—so we may be friends, if you'll walk beside me, neither behind nor in front. I am excited, and feel as if I must have someone to talk to, but I am a little tired of conversation with Innocentina. I know all she has ever thought about since she was born."
"It's a bargain then," said I. "We're friends and comrades—until Aosta. After that——"
"Each goes his own way," he finished my broken sentence; "as ships pass in the night. But this little sailing boat won't forget that the big bark came to its help, in a storm which it couldn't have weathered alone."
"Do you know," said I, as we walked on together, the muleteer and the donkey girl behind us, with the animals, "you are a very odd boy. I suppose it is being American. Are all American boys like you?"
"Yes," said he, twinkling, "all. I am cut on exactly the same pattern as the rest," and he smiled a charming smile, of which I could not resist the curious fascination. "Did you never meet any American boys, till you met me?"
"I can't remember having any real conversation with one, except once. His mother had asked me in his presence (it was in New York) how I liked America, and I had answered that it dazzled me; that the only yearning I felt was for something dark and quiet, and small and uncomfortable. She was rather pleased, but the boy put a string across the drawing-room door when I went out, and tripped me up. Then we had a little conversation—quite a short one—but full of repartee. That's my solitary experience."
"I should have wanted to trip you up for that speech, too; so you see the likeness is proved. It is a funny thing, I know very few Englishmen. I've met several, but, as you say, I never had any real conversation with them."
"Maybe, if you had, you wouldn't be so down on your sex when it has reached adolescence."
"I'm afraid there isn't much difference in men, whatever their country. But it's—their attitude towards women which I hate."
I laughed. "What do you know about that?"
"I have a sister," said he, after a minute's pause. And he did not laugh. "She and I have been—tremendous chums all our lives. There isn't a thing she has done, or a thought she has had, that I don't know, and the other way round, of course."
"Twins?" I asked.
"She is twenty-one."
"Oh, four or five years older than you."
The boy evidently did not take this as a question. "She is unfortunately an heiress," he said. "Money has brought misery upon her, and through her, on me; for if she suffers, I suffer too. She used to believe in everybody. She thought men were even more sincere and upright than women, because their outlook on life was larger, and so it was easy for her to be deceived. When she came out she wasn't quite eighteen (you see we have no father or mother, only a lazy old guardian-uncle), and she thought everyone was wonderfully kind to her, so she was very happy. I suppose there never was a happier girl—for a while. But by-and-bye she began to find out things. She discovered that the men who seemed the nicest only cared for her money, not for her at all."
"How could she be sure of that?"
"It was proved, over and over again, in lots of ways."
"But if she is a pretty and charming girl——"
"I think she is only odd—like me. People don't understand her, especially men. They find her strange, and men don't like girls to be strange."
"Don't they? I thought they did."
"Think for yourself. Have you ever been at all in love? And if you have, wasn't the girl quite, quite conventional; just a nice sweet girl, who was pretty, and who flirted, and who was too properly brought up ever to do or to say anything to surprise you?"
"Well," I admitted, my mind reviewing this portrait of Helen, which was really a well-sketched likeness, "now you put it in that way, I confess the girl I've cared for most was of the type you describe. I can see that now, though I didn't think of it then."
"No, you wouldn't; men don't. My sister soon learned that she wasn't really the sort of girl to be popular, though she had dozens of proposals, heaps of flowers every day, had to split up each dance several times at a ball, and all that kind of thing. It was a shock to find out why. To her face, they called her 'Princess,' and she was pleased with the nickname at first, poor thing. She took it for a compliment to herself. But she came to know that behind her back it was different; she was the 'Manitou Princess.' You see, the money, or most of it, came because father owned the biggest silver mines in Colorado, and he named the principal one 'Manitou,' after the Indian spirit. I shan't forget the day when a man she'd just refused, told her the vulgar nickname—and a few other things that hurt. But I don't know why I'm talking to you like this. I wanted to get away from you yesterday, because I—don't care to meet people. Everything seems different though, now. I suppose it's because you saved our lives. I feel as if you weren't exactly a new person, but as if—I'd known you a long time."
"I have the same sort of feeling about you, for some queer reason," said I. "Are we also to know each other's names?"
"No," he answered quickly. "That would spoil the charm: for there is a charm, isn't there? But we won't call each other Brat and Brute any more. That's ancient history. I'll be for you—just Boy. I think I will call you Man."
"But you hate Man."
"I don't hate you. If I were a girl I might, but as it is, I don't. I like you—Man."
"And I like you, Boy. We are pals now. Shall we shake hands?"
We did. I could have crushed his little brown paw, if I had not manipulated it carefully.
After that, we did not talk much. By-and-bye, he was tired, and remounted his donkey, but we still kept side by side, Innocentina sending at intervals a perfunctory cry of "Fanny-anny," from a distance, by way of keeping the small brown ane to her work.
So we reached the beautiful valley of Aosta, as the transparent azure veil of the Italian dusk was drawn, and out of that dusk glimmered now and then, as if born of the shadows, strange, stunted, and misshapen forms, gnome-like creatures, who stood aside to let us pass along the road. It was as if the Brownie Club were out for a night excursion; and I remembered my muleteer's lecture about the cretins of this happy valley. These were some of them, going back to town from their day's work in the fields. I had set my mind upon stopping at a hotel of which Joseph had told me, extolling its situation at a distance from Aosta ville, the wonderful mountain-pictures its windows framed, and a certain pastoral primitiveness, not derogatory to comfort, which I should find in the menage. But when my late enemy and new chum remarked that he was going to the Mont Blanc, I hesitated.
"And you?" he asked.
"Oh, I—well, I had thought—but it doesn't matter."
"I see what you mean. Would it be disagreeable for you if I were in the same hotel?"
"On the contrary. But you——"
"I know now that we shall never rub each other up the wrong way—again. Besides, we shan't have the chance. I suppose you go on somewhere else to-morrow?"
"No, I want to stop a day or two. Some friends have asked me to tell them about the sights of the neighbourhood, and what sort of motoring roads there are near by."
"I'm stopping, too. So, after all, the little sailing boat and the big bark aren't going to pass each other this night? They are to anchor in the same harbour for a while."
"And here's the harbour," said I, for we had come down from the hills into a marvellous old town of ancient towers and arches, with a background of white mountains. Molly should have been satisfied. I had obeyed her instructions to the letter, and I was in Aosta at last.
"If you climb to our castle's top I don't see where your eyes can stop." —ROBERT BROWNING.
Our hotel had a big loggia, as large as a good-sized room, and we dined in it, with a gorgeous stage setting. The mountains floated in mid-sky, pearly pale, and magical under the rising moon. The little circle of light from our pink-shaded candles on the table (I say our, because Boy and I dined together) gave to the picture a bizarre effect, which French artists love to put on canvas; a blur of gold-and-rose artificial light, blending with the silver-green radiance of a full moon.
I don't know what we had to eat, except that there were trout from the river, and luscious strawberries and cream; but I know that the dinner seemed perfect, and that the head waiter, a delightful person, brought us champagne, with a long-handled saucepan wrapped in an immaculate napkin, to do duty as an ice-pail. I wondered why I had not come long ago to this place, named in honour of Augustus Caesar, and why everybody else did not come. The ex-Brat was in the game frame of mind. We talked of more things than are dreamed of in philosophy—(other people's philosophy)—and there was not a book which was a dear friend of mine that was not a friend of this strange child's.
We sat until the moon was high, and the candles low. I felt curiously happy and excited, a mood no doubt due in part to the climate of Aosta, in part to the discovery of a congenial spirit, where I had least expected to find one.
Last night, we had been, at best, on terms of armed neutrality; to-night we were friends, and would continue friends, though we parted to-morrow. But parting was not what we thought of at the moment. On the contrary, half to our surprise, we found ourselves planning to see Aosta in each other's company.
After ten o'clock, when, deliciously fatigued, I was on my way to my room along a great arcaded balcony which ran the length of the house, I met Joseph, lying in wait for me. My conscience pricked. I had forgotten to send the poor, tired fellow definite instructions for the next day. He had come to solicit them, but, if I could judge by moonlight, he looked far from jaded; indeed, he had an air of alertness, for him almost of gaiety.
"You and Finois can have a rest to-morrow and the day after," said I, "while I do some sightseeing. I hear that I shall need one day at least for the town, and another for a drive to the chateaux and show-places of the neighbourhood. I hope you will be able to amuse yourself."
"Monsieur must not think of me. I shall do very well," dutifully replied Joseph.
"It is a pity that you and Innocentina do not get on. Otherwise——"
"Ah, perhaps I should tell monsieur that I may have misjudged the young woman a little. It seems a question of bringing up, more than real badness of heart. It is her tongue that is in fault; and I am not even sure that with good influences she might not improve. I have been talking to her, Monsieur, of religion. She is black Catholic, and I Protestant, but I think that some of my arguments made a certain impression upon her mind."
After this, I gave myself no further anxiety about Joseph's to-morrow, but went to bed, and dreamed of fighting for the Boy's life, Gulliver-like, against a band of infuriated Brownies.
My first morning thought was to look out of all four windows at the mountains; my next, to ring for a bath.
Now, as a rule, your morning tub is a function you are not supposed to describe in detail; but not to picture the ceremony as performed at Aosta, is to pass by the place without giving the proper dash of local colour.
I rang. A girl appeared who struck me as singularly beautiful, but I discovered later that all girls are more or less beautiful at Aosta. The propriety of this morning visit was insured by the white cap, which was, so to speak, an adequate chaperon. On my request for a bath, the beauty looked somewhat agitated, but, after reflection, said that she would fetch one, and vanished, tripping lightly along the balcony.
Twenty minutes then passed, and at the end of that time the young lady returned, almost obliterated by an enormous linen sheet which engulfed her like an avalanche. She was accompanied by a man and a boy, staggering under a strange object which resembled a vast arm-chair, of the grandfather variety. When placed on the floor, I became aware that it was a kind of cross between a throne and a bath-tub, and, having seen the huge sheet flung over it, I still rested in doubt as to the latter's purpose. The man and boy, who had not stood upon the order of their going, returned after an embarrassing absence, with pails of water, the contents of which, to my surprise, they flung upon the sheet.
I tried to explain that, if this were a bath, I preferred it without the family linen, but the femme de chambre seemed so shocked at these protestations, that I ceased uttering them, and determined to make the best of things as they stood.
When I was again alone, after several rehearsals I found a way of accommodating the human form to the hybrid receptacle, and was amazed at its luxuriousness. The secret of this lay in the sheet, which was fragrant of lavender, and protected the body from contact with a cold, base metal which hundreds of other bodies must have touched before.
"'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands," might be said of a hotel bath-tub as well as of a stolen purse; and having once known the linen-lined bath of Aosta, I was promptly spoiled for common, un-lined tubs. This was a lesson not to form hasty opinions; but being a normal man, I shall no doubt continue to do so until the day of my death.
The Boy and I broke our fast together on the loggia, which was even more entertaining as a salle-a-manger by morning than by night. The coffee was exquisite; the hot, foaming milk had but lately been drawn from its original source, a little biscuit-coloured Alderney with the pleading eyes of that fair nymph stricken to heiferhood by jealous Juno. The strawberries and figs came to the table from the hotel garden, and so did the luscious roses, which filled a bowl in the centre of our small white table.
This was Arcadia. The very simplicities of the hotel endeared it to our hearts, and there was no real comfort lacking which we could have obtained in London or in Paris.
After breakfast we set off with our cameras to the town, a walk of ten or fifteen minutes. It was strange, in this pilgrimage of mine, how often I found myself running back into the Feudal or Middle Ages, as far removed from the familiar bustle of modern days as if an iron door had been shut and padlocked behind me.
There was little of the Twentieth Century in Aosta (named by Augustus the "Rome of the Alps"), except the monument to "Le Roi Chasseur," and the bookshops, which seemed extraordinarily well supplied with the best literature of all countries. The type of face we met was primitive; scarcely one which would have been out of place on some old Roman coin. Here, at the end of a narrow, shadowed street, where St. Anselm first saw the light (it must have been with difficulty) we came upon a magnificent archway, built to do honour to Augustus Caesar's defeat of the brave Salasses, four and twenty years before the world had a Saviour. A few steps further on, and we were under the majestic mass of the Porta Pretoria; or we were crossing a Roman bridge, or gazing at the ruins of Roman ramparts. Or, we lost our way in searching for the amphitheatre, and found ourselves suddenly skipping over centuries into the Middle Ages, represented by the mysterious Tour Bramafam, the Tour des Prisons, or the Tour du Lepreux, round which Xavier Maistre wrote his pathetic dialogue. Then, there was the cathedral with its extraordinary painted facade, like a great coloured picture-book; and the tall cross, straddling a spring in a paved street, put up in thanksgiving by the Aostans when they joyfully saw Calvin's back for the last time.
We spent all day in sightseeing, and had another moonlight evening on the loggia. We were great pals now, Boy and I. I had never met anyone in the least like him. At one moment he was a human boy, almost a child; at another his brain leaped beyond mine, and he became a poet or a philosopher; again he was an elfin sprite, a creature for whom Puck was the one thinkable name. There was a single thing only, about which you could always be sure. He would never be twice the same.
Still, though we were friends, "Boy" and "Man" we remained. He kept his name a secret, and he had forbidden me to mention mine. Nor had he spoken of his route or destination, after Aosta. As to this I was curious, for I knew now that it would be a wrench to part with the strange little being whose ears I had tingled to box three days (or was it three years?) ago. Already he had done me good; and though I had hardly reached the point of confessing as much to myself, as a plain matter of fact I would not have exchanged his quaint companionship for that of my lost love. How she would have hated this idyllic Arcadia! How triste she would have been; how weary after a day's tour among relics of past ages; and how much she would have preferred Bond Street to the Arch of Augustus, or the park to our snow mountains and green valley! Even Davos she would have found intolerable had it not been for the tobogganing, the dances and the theatricals, in all of which she had played a leading part. Deep down in the darkest corner of my soul, I now knew that I would not have fallen in love with Helen Blantock had I first met her in Aosta.
The Boy and I agreed that our head waiter was one of the nicest men we had ever met, and when he pledged his personal honour that a day's wandering among neighbouring castles would be "very repaying," we determined to bolt the five he most recommended in one gulp, on our second and last afternoon. If he could, he would have sent us spinning like teetotums from one concentric ring of historic chateaux to another, until goodness knows how far from Aosta, Finois, Souris, and Fanny-anny, we should have ended. He would also have despatched us on a two or three days' excursion to Courmayeur; and I fear that his respect for us went down like mercury in a chilled thermometer, when he understood that we had not come to the country to do any of the famous climbs. He named so many, dear to the hearts of my Alpine Club acquaintances, that it would have taken us well into the new year to accomplish half; and he accepted with mild, disapproving resignation our fiat that there were other parts of the world worth seeing.
As we had to cover a radius of many miles, in our rounds of visits at the few sample chateaux we had selected from the waiter's list, we decided to spare our legs and those of the animals. It was hardly playing the game we had set out to play—we two strangely-met friends—to amble conventionally from show-house to show-house, in a carriage, with guide-books in our hands, like everyday tourists; nevertheless, we did this unworthy thing. Perhaps, therefore, I deserved the punishment which fell upon me.
Little did I dream, when I flippantly spoke of our expedition as "driving out to pay calls," how nearly my thoughtless words were to be realised. We started immediately after an early dejeuner, sitting side by side in a little low-swung carriage, a superior phaeton, or poor relation of a victoria. The day was hot, but a delicious breeze came to us from the snow mountains, and there was a peculiar buoyancy in the air.
Our first castle was Sarre, the Chateau Royal, an enormous brown building with a disproportionately high tower. This hunting-lodge of the King would have been grimly ugly, were it not for its rocky throne, high above the river bed, and its background of glistening white mountains. The huge pile looked like a sleeping dragon with its hundreds of window-eyes close-lidded, and I could not imagine it an amusing place for a house party. I was glad that the Boy was not animated with that wild mania for squeezing the last drop from the orange of sightseeing which makes some travelling companions so depressing. The castle was closed to visitors, yet many people would have insisted on climbing the steep hill for the barren satisfaction of saying that they had been there. I rejoiced that my little Pal was not one of these; but I should have been more prudent had I waited.
We drove on, after a pause for inspection, along a road which would have rejoiced the motor-loving heart of Jack Winston, and I made a note to tell him what a magnificent tour he might have in this enchanted country one day with his car, tooling down from Milan. As I mentally arranged my next letter to the Winstons, the Boy gave a little cry of delight. "Oh, what a queer, delightful place! It's all towers, just held together by a thread of castle. It must be Aymaville."
I looked up and beheld on a high hill an extraordinary chateau, something like four chess castles grouped together at the corners of a square heap of dice. It does not sound an attractive description, yet the place deserved that adjective. It was charming, and wonderfully "liveable," among its vineyards, commanding such a view as is given to few show-places in the world.
"The descendants of the original family have restored it, and live there, don't they?" asked the Boy in Italian of the cocher.
The man answered that this was the case, and was inspired by my evil genius to enquire if ces messieurs would like to go over the chateau.
"Is it allowed?" the Boy questioned eagerly.
"But certainly. Shall I drive up to the house? It will be only an all little ten minutes."
Without waiting for my answer, the Boy took my consent for granted, and said yes.
Instantly we left the broad white road, and began winding up a narrow, steep, and stony way, among vineyards. The cocher's all little ten minutes lengthened into half an hour, but at last we halted before a garden gate—a high, uncompromising, reserved-looking gate.
"The fellow must be mistaken," said I. "This place has not the air of encouraging visitors;" but, before the words were out of my mouth, the enterprising cocher had rung the gate bell.
After an interval a gardener appeared, and betrayed such mild, ingenuous surprise at sight of us that I wished ourselves anywhere else than before the portals of the Chateau d'Aymaville. Gladly would I have whipped up our fat, barrel-shaped nag, and driven into the nearest rabbit-hole, but it was too late. The gardener took the enquiry as to whether visitors were admitted, with the gravity he would have given to a question in the catechism: Is your name N. or M.? Can one see your master's house?
Oh, without doubt, one could see the house. Would les messieurs kindly accompany him? His aspect wept, and mine (unless it belied me) copied his. "Isn't it hateful?" I asked, sotto voce, of the Boy, expecting sympathy which I did not get. "No, I think it's great fun," said he.
"But I'm sure they are not in the habit of showing the house. You can tell by the man's manner. He's nonplussed. I should think no one has ever had the cheek to apply for permission before."
"Then they ought to be complimented because we have."
I was silenced, though far from convinced; but if you have made an engagement with an executioner, it is a point of honour not to sneak off and leave him in the lurch, when he has taken the trouble to sharpen his axe, and put on his red suit and mask for your benefit.
We arrived, after a walk through a pretty garden, upon a terrace where there was a marvellous view. The gardener showed it to us solemnly, we pacing after him all round the chateau, as if we played a game. At the open front door we were left alone for a few minutes, heavy with suspense, while our guide held secret conclave with a personable woman who was no doubt a housekeeper. Astonished, but civil, with dignified Italian courtesy she finally invited us in, and I was coward enough to let the Boy lead, I following with a casual air, meant to show that I had been dragged into this business against my will; that I was, in fact, the tail of a comet which must go where the cornet leads.
Everywhere, inside the castle, were traces that the family had fled with precipitation. Here was a bicycle leaning abject against a wall; there, an open book thrown on the floor; here, a fallen chair; there, a dropped piece of sewing.
Once or twice in England, I had stayed in a famous show-house, and my experience on the public Thursdays there had taught me what these people were enduring now. At Waldron Castle we had been hunted from pillar to post; if we darted from the hall into a drawing-room, the public would file in before we could escape to the boudoir; the lives of foxes in the hunting season could have been little less disturbed than ours, and we were practically only safe in our own or each other's bedrooms—indeed, any port was precious in a storm.
By the time that the Boy and I had been led, like stalled oxen, through a long series of living-rooms, I knowing that the rightful inhabitants were panting in wardrobes, my nerves were shattered. I admired everything, volubly but hastily, and broke into fireworks of adjectives, always edging a little nearer to the exit, though not, I regret to say, invariably aided by the Boy. He, indeed, seemed to find an impish pleasure in my discomfiture.
During the round, I was dimly conscious that the entire staff of servants, most of them maids, and embarrassingly beautiful, flitted after us like the ghosts who accompanied Dante and his guide on their tour of the Seven Circles. As, at last, we returned to the square entrance hail, they melted out of sight, still like shadows, and I had a final moment of extreme anguish when, at the door, the housekeeper refused the ten francs I attempted to press into her haughty Italian palm.
"No more afternoon calls on chateaux for me, after that experience," I gasped, when we were safely seated in the homelike vehicle which I had not sufficiently appreciated before.
"Oh, I shall be disappointed if you won't go with me to the Chateau of St. Pierre which we saw in the photograph—that quaint mass of towers and pinnacles, on the very top of a peaked rock," said the Boy. "I've been looking forward to it more than to anything else, but I shan't have courage to do it alone."
"Courage?" I echoed. "After the brazen way in which you stalked through the scattered belongings of the family at Aymaville, you would stop at nothing."
"In other words, I suppose you think me a typical Yankee boy? But I really was nervous, and inclined to apologise to somebody for being alive. That's why I can't go through another such ordeal without company; yet I wouldn't miss this eleventh-century castle for a bag of your English sovereigns."
"If only it had been left alone, and not restored!" I groaned. "In that case we should meet no one but bats."
"We? Then you will go with me?"
"I suppose so," I sighed. "It can't add more than a dozen grey hairs, and what are they among so many?"
A few kilometres further on we reached the "bizarre monticule," from which sprouted a still more bizarre chateau. From our low level, it was impossible to tell where the rock stopped, and where the castle began, so deftly had man seized every point of vantage offered by Nature—and "points" they literally were.
The ascent from the road to the chateau was much like climbing a fire-escape to the top of a New York sky-scraper, but we earned the right to cry "Excelsior!" at last, had we not by that moment been speechless. History now repeated itself. I rang; the castle gate was opened, but this time by a major-domo who had already in some marvellous way learned that strangers might be expected.
Never was so appallingly hospitable a man, and I trusted that even the Boy suffered from his kindness. Madame la Baronne, who was away for the afternoon, would chide him if guests were allowed to leave her house without refreshment. Eat we must, and drink we must, in the beautiful hall evidently used as a sitting-room by the absent chatelaine. Her wine and her cakes were served on an ancient silver tray, almost as old as the family traditions, and it was not until we had done to both such justice as the major-domo thought fair that he would consent to let us go further.
The house was really of superlative interest, though spoiled here and there by eccentric modern decoration. Much of the window glass had remained intact through centuries; the walls were twelve feet thick; the oak-beamed ceilings magnificent, and the secret stairways and rooms in the thickness of the walls, bewildering; but when our conductor began leading us into the bedrooms in daily use by the ladies of the castle, my gorge rose. "This is awful," I said. "I can't go on. What if Madame la Baronne returns and finds a strange man and a boy in her bedroom? Good heavens, now he's opening the door of the bath!"
"We must go on," whispered the Boy, convulsed with silent laughter. "If we don't, the major-domo won't understand our scruples. He'll think we're tired, and don't appreciate the castle. It would never do to hurt his feelings, when he has been so kind."
"To the bitter end, then," I answered desperately; and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than the bitter end came. It consisted of a collision with the Baronne's dressing-jacket, which hung from a hook, and tapped me on the shoulder with one empty frilled sleeve, in soft admonition. I could bear no more. One must draw the line somewhere, and I drew the line at intruding upon ladies' dressing-jackets in their most sacred fastnesses.
If I had been a woman, my pent-up emotion at this moment would have culminated in hysterics, but being a man, I merely bolted, stumbling, as I fled, over my absent hostess' bedroom slippers. I scuttled down a winding flight of tower stairs, broke incontinently into a lighted region which turned out to be a kitchen, startled the cook, apologised incontinently, and somehow found myself, like Alice in Wonderland, back in the great entrance hail. There, starting at every sound, lest a returning family party should catch me "lurking," I awaited the Boy.
We left, finally, showering francs and compliments; but I crawled out a decrepid wreck, and refused pitilessly to do more than view the exterior of other chateaux. It was evening when we saw our white hotel once more, and a haze of starlight dusted the sky and all the blue distance with silver powder.
The Path of the Moon
"And then they came to the turnstile of night." —RUDYARD KIPLING.
This was to be our last night at Aosta, perhaps our last night together, for the Boy's plans kept his name company in some secret "hidie hole" of his mind. As, for the third time, we dined on the loggia, before the rising of the moon, we drifted into talk of intimate things. It was I who began it. I harked back to the broken conversation which had first made us friends, and to his chance sketch of Helen Blantock and her type. In that connection, I ventured to bring up the subject of his sister.
"What you said about her disillusionment interested me very much," I told him. "You see, I've just come through an experience something like it myself, do you mind talking about her?"
"Not in this place—and this mood—and to you," he answered. "But first—what disillusioned you?"
"Disappointment in someone I cared for,—and believed in."
"It was the same with—my sister."
"Yes, poor Princess. Was it—a man friend who disappointed you?"
"A woman. The old story. As a matter of fact, she threw me over because another fellow had a lot more money than I."
"Oh, just an ordinary, conventional, well brought up girl. Now you see I have as much right to a grudge against women, as your sister the Princess has against men."
"But I don't believe the girl could have been as cruel to you, as this man I'm thinking of was to—her. They'd known each other for years, since childhood. He used to call her his 'little sweetheart' when she was ten and he was fifteen. How was she to dream that even when he was a boy, he didn't really like her better than other little girls, that already he was making calculations about her money? She thought he was different from the others, that he cared for herself. They were engaged, the bridesmaids asked, the trousseau ready, the invitations out for the wedding, and then—one night she overheard a conversation between him and a cousin of his, who was to be one of her bridesmaids. Only a few words—but they told everything. It was the other girl he loved, and had always loved. But he was poor, and so—well, you can guess the rest. My sister broke off her engagement the next day, though the man went on his knees to her, and vowed he had been mad. Then she left home at once, and soon she was taken very ill."
"She loved that worthless scoundrel so much?"
"I don't know. I don't think she knows. It was the destruction of an ideal which was terrible. She had clung to it. She had said to herself: 'Many men may be false, and mercenary, and unscrupulous, but this one is true.' Suddenly, he had ceased to exist for her. She stood alone in the world—in the dark."
"Except for you."
"Except for me, and a few friends,—one girl especially, who was heavenly to her. But the dearest girl friend can't make up for the loss of trust in a lover."
"That's true. By Jove, I thought I had been roughly used, but it's nothing to this. I feel as if I knew your sister, somehow. I wonder, since you and she are such pals, that you can bear to leave her."
"She wanted to be alone. She said she didn't feel at home in life any more, and it made her restless to be with anyone who knew her trouble, anyone who pitied her. I was ill too,—from sympathy, I suppose, and—she thought a tramp like this would do me good. So it has. Being close to nature, especially among mountains, as I've been for weeks now, makes one's troubles and even one's sister's troubles seem small."
"You are young to feel that."
"My soul isn't as young as my body. Maybe that's why nature is so much to me. I am more alive when I'm away from big towns. Sunrises and sunsets are more important than the rising and falling of money markets. They—and the wind in the trees. What things they say to you! You can't explain; you can only feel. And when you have felt, when you have heard colour, and seen sounds, you are never quite the same, quite as sad, again,—I mean if you have been sad."
"I've said all that—precisely that—to myself lately," I exclaimed, forgetting that I was a man talking to a child. The strange little person whom I had apostrophised as "Brat" seemed not only an equal, but a superior. I found myself intensely interested in him, and all that concerned him. "Odd, that you, too, should have thought that thing about colour and sound! This evening-blue, for instance. Do you hear the music of it?"
"Yes. I'm not sure it isn't that which has made me answer your questions. But now let's talk of something else—or better still, let's not talk at all, for a while."
We were silent, and I wondered if the Boy's thoughts ran with mine, or if he had closed and locked the secret door in his brain, and listened dreamily to the sweet evening voices of this Valley of Musical Bells.
Suddenly, into the many sounds of the silence, broke a loud and jarring note; the trampling of men's feet and horses' hoofs; loud laughter and the jingling of accoutrements. We looked over the balustrade to see a battalion of soldiers marching at ease, on their way back from some mountain manoeuvres, and as we gazed down, they stared up, a young fellow shouting to the Boy that he had better join them.
"It's like life calling one back," said the strange child. "I suppose one must always go on, somewhere else. And we—we must go on, though it is sweet here."
"It was what I was thinking of just now," I answered. "Are we to part company?"
The Boy laughed—an odd little laugh. "Why, that depends," said he abruptly, "on where you are going. I've planned to walk back over the St. Bernard to Martigny, and so by way of the Tete Noire to Chamounix. That name—Chamounix—has always been to my ears, as Stevenson says, 'like the horns of elf-land, or crimson lake.' I want to come face to face with Mont Blanc, of which I've only seen a far-off mirage, long ago when I was a little chap, at Geneva. What are your plans?"
"If I ever had any, I've forgotten them," said I. "Look here, Little Pal, shall we join forces as far as—as far as——"
"The turnstile," he finished my broken sentence.
"Where is the turnstile?"
"At the place—whatever it may be—where we get tired of each other. Isn't that what you meant?"
"According to my present views, that place might be at the other end of the world. You must remember it was never I who tried to get away from you. At the Cantine de Proz, I——"
"Don't let's remember to that time. Then, I didn't know that you were—You. That makes all the difference. You looked as if you might be nice, but I've learned not to trust first impressions, especially of men—grown-up men. There are such lots of people one drifts across, who are not real people at all, but just shells, with little rattling nuts of dull, imitation ideas inside, taken from newspapers, or borrowed from their friends. Fancy what it would be to see glorious places with such a companion! It would drive me mad. I determined not to make aquaintances on this trip; but you—why, I feel now as if it would be almost insulting you to call you 'an acquaintance.' We are—oh, I'll take your word! We're 'pals,' and Something big that's over all meant us to be pals. I don't mind telling you, Man, that I should miss you, if we parted now."
"We won't part," I said quickly. "We'll jog along together. Have a cigarette? I'm going to smoke a pipe, because I feel contented."
Between puffs of that pipe (an instrument which I strongly but vainly recommended to the Boy) I told him of my night drive over the St. Gothard. As it was his whim to consider names of no importance, I did not mention that of Jack and Molly Winston, but spoke of them merely as "my friends."
"Could we do the St. Bernard at night?" he asked eagerly.
"Yes, we could, if we saved ourselves by driving up from here to St. Rhemy, after dejeuner, otherwise it would mean being on foot all day and all night too. We could send Joseph, Innocentina, and the animals on very early to-morrow morning, to the Hospice, where they might rest till evening. The good monks would give us a meal of some sort about six, and at seven we could leave the Hospice. There would be an interval of starry darkness, and then we should have the full moon."
"Splendid to see the Pass by moonlight, after knowing it by day, and sunset, and dawn! It would be like finding out wonderful new qualities in your friends, which you'd never guessed they had."
Thus the Boy; and a few moments later the details of our journey were arranged. Joseph and Innocentina were interrupted in the midst of ardent attempts to convert one another, to be told what was in store for them. They did not appear averse to the arrangement, for a slight pout of the young woman's hardly counted; there was no doubt that a journey a deux would offer infinite opportunities for religious disputation.
As for the Little Pal and me, we carried out the first part of our programme to the letter. Two barrel-shaped nags instead of one took us to St. Rhemy, the little mountain village whose men are exempt from conscription, and called, poetically yet literally, "Soldiers of the Snow." Further up the jewelled way, our little victoria could not venture, and we trod the steep path side by side, the Boy stepping out bravely, the top of his panama on a level with my ear.
Some magnetic cord of communication between his brain and mine telegraphed back and forth, without personal intervention on either part, my keen enjoyment of the scene, and his. We did not talk much, but each knew what the other was feeling. Most people disappoint you by their lack of capacity to enjoy nature, in moments which are superlative to you—moments which alone would repay you for the whole trouble of living through blank years. But this boy's spirit responded to beauty, up to an extreme point which was highly satisfactory. I saw it in the exaltation on his little sunburned face.
Joseph and Innocentina were ostentatiously delighted to greet us at the Hospice. They and the animals had had their evening meal, and were ready to start when we wished. We went to the refectory and dined in company with many persons of many nationalities, who had just arrived from the Swiss and Italian valleys. Some of them manipulated their food strangely, as I had noticed here before; and Boy confided to me his opinion that it was a pity human beings were still obliged to eat with their mouths, like the lower animals. "It's a disgrace to one's face, which ought to be exclusively for better things. It's really too primitive, this penny-in-the-slot sort of arrangement. There ought to be a tiny trap-door in one's chest somewhere, so that one could just slip food in unobtrusively, at a meal, and go on talking and laughing as if nothing had happened."
We were not long in dining, but by the time we came out again into the biting cold, late afternoon had changed to early evening.
It was sunset. The great mountain shapes of glittering, red gold were clear as the profiles of goddesses, against a sky of rose. One—the grandest goddess of all—wore on her proud head a crown of snow which sparkled with diamond coruscations, rainbow-tinted in the pink light. Below her golden forehead hovered a thin cloud-veil, of pale lilac; and we had gone a long way down the mountain before the ineffable colour burned to ashes-of-rose. Then darkness caught and engulfed us, in the Valley of Death. The rushing of the river in its ravine was like the voice of night, not a separate sound at all, for hearing it was to hear the silence.
By-and-bye we grew conscious of a faint, gradual revealing of the mountain-tops, which for a time had been black, jagged pieces cut out from the spangled fabric of a starry sky. A ripple of pearly light wavered over them, like the reflection of the unseen river mirrored for the Lady of Shalott.
It was a strange, living light, beating with a visible pulse, and it slowly grew until its white radiance had extinguished the individual lamps of the stars. Waterfalls flashed out of darkness, like white, laughing nymphs flinging off black masks and dominoes; silver goblets and diamond necklaces were flung into the river bed, and vanished forever with a mystic gleam.
"If there's a heaven, can there be anything in it better than this, Little Pal?" I asked.
"There can be God," he said. "I'm a pagan sometimes in the sun, but never on a night like this. Then one knows things one isn't sure of at other times. Why, I suppose there isn't really a world at all! God is simply thinking of these things, and of us, so we and they seem to be. We are his thoughts; the mountains, and the river, and the wild-flowers are his thoughts. It's just as if an author writes a story. In the story, all the people and the things which concern them are real, but you close the volume and they simply don't exist. Only God doesn't close the volume, I think, until the next is ready."
"I wonder whether we'll both come into the next story?"
"Who knows? Perhaps you'll wander into one story, and I'll get lost in another."
A certain sadness fell upon me, born partly of our talk, partly of the poignant beauty of the night. We came to the Cantine de Proz, fast asleep in its lonely valley, and so we went on and on, our souls tuned to music and poetry by the song of the stars and the beauty of the night: But slowly a change stole over us. For a long time I was only dimly conscious of it, in a puzzled way, in myself. Why was it that my spirit stood no longer on the heights? Why did the moonlight look cold and metallic? Why had the rushing sound of the river got on my nerves, like the monotonous crying of a fretful child? Why did our frequent silences no longer tingle with a meaning which there was no need to express in words? Why was my brain empty of impressions as a squeezed sponge of water? Why, in fact, though everything was outwardly the same, why was all in reality different?
"Oh, Man, I'm so hungry!" sighed Boy.
"By Jove, that's what's been the matter with me this last half-hour, and I didn't know it!" said I.
"I feel as if I could form a hollow square, all by myself."
"I only wish there were something to form it round."
"But there isn't—except a few chocolate creams I bought in Aosta because I respected their old age, poor things."
"Perhaps even decrepid chocolates are better than nothing. Let's give 'em honourable burial—unless you want them all to yourself, as you did the chicken at the 'Dejeuner,' and the room at the Cantine de Proz."
"Oh, you must have thought I was selfish! But truly, I don't think I am. It wasn't that. Only—I can't explain."
"You needn't," said I. "I was 'kidding'—a most appropriate treatment for a man of your size. What I want is food, not explanations."
The chocolates, which proved to be eighteen in number, were fairly divided, Boy refusing to accept more than his half. We each ate one with distaste, because the celebrated "Right Spot" was not to be pacified by unsuitable sacrifices; but presently it relented and demanded more. Appeased for the moment, the Spot allowed us to proceed, but incredibly soon it began again to clamour. We ate several more chocolates, though our gorge rose against them as a means of refreshment. Still Bourg St. Pierre, where we were sooner or later to sleep, was far away, and for the third time we were driven to chocolate. It was a loathsome business eating the remaining morsels of our supply, and we felt that the very name of the food would in future be abhorrent to us. The night had become unfriendly, the Pass a Via Dolorosa, and the last drop was poured into our cup of misery at Bourg St. Pierre.
We had wired from the Hospice for rooms, and expected to find the little "Dejeuner" cheerfully lighted, the plump landlady amusingly surprised to see the guests who had lately brought dissension into her house returning peaceably together. But the roadside inn was asleep like a comfortable white goose with its head under its wing. Not a gleam in any window, save the bleak glint of moonlight on glass.
Joseph and Innocentina were behind us with their charges, whose stored crusts of bread they had probably shared. I knocked at the doors No responsive sound from within. I pounded with my walking stick. A thin imp of echo mocked us, and, my worst passions roused by this inhospitality falling on top of nine chocolate creams, I almost beat the door down.
Two sleepy eyelid-windows flew up, and a moment later a little servant who had served me the other afternoon, appeared at the door like a frightened rabbit at bay.
I demanded the wherefore of this reception; I demanded rooms and food and reparation. What, was I the monsieur who had telegraphed from the Hospice? But madame had answered that she had not a room in the house. The carriage of a large party of very high nobility had broken down late in the afternoon, and they were remaining for the night, until the damage could be repaired. What to do? But there was nothing, unless les messieurs would sleep, one on the sofa, the other on the floor, in the room of the "dejeuner."
"I suppose we'll have to put up with that accommodation, then. What do you say, Boy?" I asked.
"I would rather go on," he replied, in a tone of misery tempered by desperate resignation, as if he had been giving orders for his own funeral.
"Go on where?" I enquired grimly.
"I don't know. Anywhere."
"'Anywhere' means in this instance the open road."
"Well—I'm not so very cold, are you? And I'm sure they'll give us a little bread and cheese here."
"I think it would be wiser to stop," said I. "We might see the ghost of Napoleon eating the dejeuner. Isn't that an inducement?"