"I assure you that I don't snore or howl in my sleep. And you could have the sofa to curl up on."
"Ye-es; but I'd rather go on. You and Joseph can stop. Innocentina and I will be all right."
I was annoyed with the child. I felt that he fully deserved to be taken at his word, and deserted on the Pass, but I had not the heart to punish him. If anything should happen to the poor Babe in the Wood, I should never forgive myself; and besides, it would have been hopeless to seek sleep, with visions of disaster to this strange Little Pal of mine painting my brain red.
"Of course I won't do anything of the kind," I said crossly. "If one party goes on, both will go on." I then snappishly ordered food of some sort, any sort—except chocolate,—and having, after a blank interval, obtained enough bread, cheese, and ham for at least ten persons, I divided the rations with Joseph and Innocentina, who had now come up.
We had a short halt for rest and refreshment, taken simultaneously, and presently set out again, with a vague idea of plodding on as far as Orsieres. The Boy refused so obstinately to ride his donkey (I believe because I must go on foot), that Innocentina, thwarted, did frightful execution among her favourite saints. Joseph reproved her; she retorted by calling him a black heretic, and vowing that she had a right to talk as she pleased to her own saints; it was not his affair. Thus it was that our chastened cavalcade left the "Dejeuner."
After this, our journey was punctuated by frequent pauses. The donkeys were tired; everybody was cross; the calm indifference of the glorious night was as irritating as must have been the "icily regular, splendidly null" perfection of Maud herself.
Only the Boy kept up any pretence of spirits, and I knew well that his counterfeited buoyancy was merely to distract attention from guilt. If it had not been for him, we should all have been tucked away in some corner or other of the "Dejeuner." No doubt he would have dropped, had he not feared an "I told you so."
We were still some miles on the wrong side of Orsieres, when Innocentina came running up from behind, exclaiming that a dreadful thing, an appalling thing, had happened. No, no, not an accident to Joseph Marcoz. A trouble far worse than that. Nothing to the mulet ou les anes. Ah, but how could she break the news? It was that in some way—some mad, magical way only to be accounted for by the intervention of evil spirits, probably attracted by the heretic presence of Joseph—the ruecksack containing the fitted bag had disappeared. If she were to be killed for it, she—Innocentina—could not tell how this great calamity had occurred.
I thought that after such an alarming preface, the Boy would laugh when the mountain had brought forth its mouse, but he did no such thing. His little face looked anxious and forlorn in the white moonlight. And all for a mere bag, which was an absurd article of luggage, at best, for an excursion such as his!
"I can't lose it," he said. "There are things in it which I wouldn't have anyone's—which I couldn't replace."
"Your sister the Princess will buy you another," I tried to console him.
"This is her bag. She would feel dreadfully if it were gone. Besides, my diary-notes for the book I want to write are in it. I would give a thousand dollars to get it again—or more. I shall have to go back."
"No, you won't," I said. "As to that, I shall put my foot down. If anyone goes——"
"Nobody shall go but myself. I won't have it. I——"
"And I won't have you go, if I'm forced to snatch you up and put you in my pocket. When I get you safely to Orsieres, I don't mind a bit——"
"No, no, you needn't say it. If we must go on to Orsieres, I'll pay someone to come back from there, and search."
"Why shouldn't I be the one? I'm not tired, only rather cross, and for all you know, I may be in urgent need of the reward you mean to offer."
"You must be satisfied with your virtue. I've my own reasons, and—and I suppose I'm my own master?"
"By Jove!" I exclaimed, laughing. "Eton would have done you a lot of good. You would have had some of your girly whims knocked out of you there, my kid."
"I wonder if that would have done me good?"
"It isn't too late to try. You haven't passed the age."
"I dare say travelling about with you will have much the same effect," said the Boy, suddenly become an imp again. "I think I'll just 'sample' that experiment first. But I do want my bag."
"Dash your bag! I'll lend you some night things out of the mule-pack. The lost treasure is sure to turn up again, like all bad pennies, to-morrow."
We reached Orsieres and roused the people of the inn with comparative ease. They could give us accommodation, but the man of the house looked dubious when he heard that a runner must at once be found to search for a travelling bag, lost nobody knew where.
"To-morrow morning, when it is light——" he began; but Boy cut him short. "To-morrow morning may be too late. I will give five thousand francs to whoever finds my bag, and brings it back with everything in it undisturbed."
The man opened his eyes wide, and I formed my lips into a silent whistle. I thought the Boy exceedingly foolish to name such a reward, when the bag and its gold fittings could not have been worth more than a hundred pounds, and an offer of three hundred francs would have been ample. What could the strange little person have in his precious bag, which he valued as the immediate jewel of his soul? and why would he not let me be the one to find it, thus keeping his five thousand francs in his pocket! He "had his reasons," forsooth! However, it was not my business.
It must have been after three o'clock by the time I fell asleep in a queer little room where you had but to sit up in bed and stretch out your arm to reach anything you wanted. I dreamed of journeying through the night with the Boy, but I forgot his lost bag: nor when I waked in full morning light, did I recall its tragic disappearance. I found that it was nearly eight, and bounded out of bed, performing my toilet with maimed rites, since baths were not comme il faut at Orsieres.
"The kid will be asleep still, I'll bet," I said to myself; but looking out of the window at that moment, I saw him in conversation with Joseph, Innocentina, and—apparently—half the inhabitants of the village.
I hurried down, and learned that the bag—still a lost bag—had set all Orsieres on fire with excitement. The searchers had returned empty-handed, having gone back as far as the Cantine de Proz; and on the oath of Innocentina (more than one, alas!), the ruecksack and its contents had been secure on the grey back of Souris when we passed the Cantine. Desolate as was the Great St. Bernard at night, late as had been the hour when the bag vanished, evidently someone had found and gone off with it. Nevertheless, many young persons of both sexes were eager to try their luck in a second quest.
The Boy, who had been up for hours, had it in mind to wait at Orsieres until his treasure should be found, or hope abandoned; but I suggested going on at once to Martigny. There, we could have handbills printed, offering a large reward, and these could be distributed over the country. The diligence drivers would help in the work, and we could also advertise in a local paper. To this proposal the Little Pal consented; and we started off again upon our way, a sadder if not a wiser party.
It was late afternoon when we straggled into Martigny. Now, our far away Alpine Rome with its crumbling towers and castles, our remote heights where a grey monastery was ever mirrored in the blue eye of the mountain lake, seemed like phases of a dream.
Friends of the Boy's (nameless to me, like all links with his outside life) had stopped lately at the hotel where Molly, Jack, and I had stayed; he therefore proposed to go to the same house, and this jumped with my inclination: for the hotel had a cheerful and home-like individuality which I liked.
Pitying the Little Pal's distress, though I chaffed him for it, I undertook the business of getting out the handbills I had suggested, and arranging for an advertisement in a paper with a local circulation. I had to visit the post-office, engaging in a long discussion with the officials who controlled the diligence, and the business occupied more than an hour. In mercy to Boy, I had not delayed for any selfish attention to personal comfort, and tramping back through an inch of white dust to the hotel, I was still as travel-worn as on our arrival in the town, nearly two hours ago. I had forbidden the tired child to accompany me, and by this time he would no doubt be refreshed with a bath and a change of clothing, as, fortunately, not all his personal belongings had been contained in the ill-fated bag. He would be impatiently waiting for me at the hotel door, perhaps; and I quickened my steps, in haste to give him details of my doings.
Entering the garden, I had to bound onto the grass, to escape being run over by a pair of horses prancing round the curve, at my back. I turned with a basilisk glare intended for the coachman, but instead met the astonished gaze of the very last eyes I could possibly have expected. My glare melted into a smile, but not one of my best, though the eyes which called it forth were alluringly beautiful.
"Contessa!" I exclaimed. "Is this you, or your astral body?"
"Lord Lane!" the lovely lady-of-the-eyes responded. "But no, it is not possible!"
Just as I was about to protest that it was not only possible, but certain, I caught sight of the Boy, in the doorway. As, at the Contessa's word, the carriage came to a sudden halt, she reaching out to me two little grey suede hands, the slim figure at the door drew back a step, as if involuntarily; but there was no getting round it, my Italian beauty had made Boy a present of my name, whether he wanted it or not.
Enter the Contessa
"She was the smallest lady alive, Made in a piece of nature's madness, Too small, almost, for the life and gladness That over-filled her." —ROBERT BROWNING.
Here was a case of Mahomet, en route to pay his respects to the Mountain, being met halfway by the object of his pilgrimage; though to liken the Contessa di Ravello to a mountain is perhaps to brutalise a poetic license. She is a fairy of a woman, a pocket Venus. Gaeta is her name, and her sponsors in baptism must have been endowed with prophetic souls, for she is the very spirit of irresponsible, childlike gaiety.
Not that she has a sense of humour. There is all the difference in the world between a sense of humour and a sense of fun, and truth to tell, the Contessa had no more humour than a frolicsome kitten. She had always been in a frolic of some sort, when I had known her in Davos, whither she had gone because she thought it would be "what you call a lark"; and she was in a frolic now, judging by her merry laughter when she saw me.
Her great wine-brown eyes were laughing, her full, cupid-lips were laughing, and more than all, the two deep, round dimples in the olive cheeks were laughing. Even the little rings of black hair on her low forehead seemed to quiver with mirth, as her head moved with quick, bird-like gestures. She was dressed all in grey, and the cut-steel buttons on her dress twinkled as if they too were in the joke.
"Fancy meeting you here, of all places!" she said, in her pretty English, lisping but correct. "It is a good gift from the saints. We have had such stupid adventures, and we have been so bored."
"We" were evidently the handsome, slightly moustached women of thirty-five, and the thin, darkly dour man of fifty who were with the Contessa in the carriage; and a moment later she had introduced me to the Baron and Baronessa di Nivoli. I echoed the name with some interest. "Have I the pleasure of meeting the inventor of the new air-ship which is so much talked about?" I asked.
"That is my brother Paolo," replied the Baron, unbending slightly.
"He will join us later," added the Baronessa, with a quick look at the pretty and rich little widow which betrayed to me a secret. She then turned a dark, disapproving gaze upon me which told another, and I could have laughed aloud. "They want to nobble my poor little Contessa for brother-aeronaut, and they don't countenance chance meetings with strange young men," I said to myself, greatly amused. "If they can see through the dust, and suspect in me a possible rival for the absent, they have sharp eyes, or keen imaginations, and I may be in for a little fun."
We were at the hotel door, and I was allowed to help the Contessa out, though the elder lady preferred the aid of the concierge. For the moment Gaeta had forgotten the claims of her companions, and remembered only mine. It is a butterfly way of hers to forget easily, and flutter with delight in a new corner of the garden, just because it is new.
"You are staying here? How nice!" she exclaimed, without giving me time to answer. "We should have arrived last night, but we had an accident to our carriage—a broken wheel. It was coming down from the Hospice of St. Bernard, which we had been to visit—oh, not to please me, do not think it. It was the Baron, here. In dim ages his people and the saint were cousins, though the idea of a saint having cousins seems actually sacrilegious, doesn't it? I do not love monks, I only respect them, which is so disagreeable. But the Baron took us. Dio mio! I have no warm blood left. It was frozen up there. And then, that our carriage should have broken down at a little place—the wrong end of nowhere—Bourg St. Something! We had to stop all night. Fancy me without my maid, who was to meet me here. I do not know if my dress is not on wrong side before. Later, we all have to go on to Chamounix and then to Aix-les-Bains. I've taken a villa there for a month. You must come and see me."
Thus she chattered on as we entered the hotel, and then, suddenly, her bright eyes fell upon the Boy, who had retired near the stairway. There he stood, with a book in his hand, and an unwonted colour in his brown cheeks, glowing red under the strange blue jewels of his eyes.
"What a divine boy!" the Countess half whispered to me, not taking her gaze from him. "He is exactly like a wonderful painting by some old Master of my own dear country. What eyes! They are better and bigger sapphires than any I own, though I've some famous ones. And how strange they are—looking out of his brown face, from under such black lashes, too. Oh, a picture, certainly. He is not like a modern, every-day boy, at all. He can't be English, of that I'm sure, and yet——"
"He is American," I said, when she paused thoughtfully, the Boy at his distance reading or pretending to read, as he stood. "But you are right. He is very far from being an every-day boy."
"You know him, then?"
"We've been travelling companions for days, and have got to be tremendous pals."
"How old is he?" asked the Contessa, a deep glow of interest and curiosity kindling in her warm brown eyes.
"I don't know. He has talked freely about himself only once or twice, though we've discussed together most other subjects under the sun."
"How deliciously mysterious. Mysterious! yes, that's the word for him. He has mysterious eyes; a mysterious face. There is a shadow upon it. That is part of the fascination, is it not? I am sure he is fascinating."
"Extraordinarily so. I have never met anyone at all like him."
"He might be a boy Tasso. But he has suffered; he is not a child any more, though his face is smooth as mine. He must be eighteen or nineteen?"
"I should give him less, though he has read and thought a tremendous lot for a boy."
"Men are not judges of age, thank heaven. Women are. I will have it that your friend is nineteen. I should be too silly to take an interest in him, were he less, if it were not motherly; and that wouldn't be entertaining. You see, I am already twenty-two."
"You look eighteen," I said; and it was true. Widow as she was, it was not possible to think of the Contessa as a responsible, grown woman.
"I told you that you were no judge of age. I was married at eighteen, a widow at nineteen. Dio mio! but it all seems a long time ago, already! Lord Lane, you must introduce to me your friend the boy."
Here was a dilemma, but I got out of it by telling the truth, which is usually, in the end, the best policy, many wise opinions to the contrary notwithstanding. "You will laugh," I said, "but I don't know his name."
"True, nevertheless, like most things that seem impossible; nor does he know mine, unless he heard you speak it driving up to the hotel. He was at the door."
"Men are extraordinary! But, introduce him. You can manage somehow. It's not his name I care for. It is those eyes. I shall invite him to come and see me in Aix. Please bring him to me now. The Baron is arranging about our rooms, and there is sure to be a misunderstanding of some sort, as we had engaged for last night and did not come. The Baronessa? Oh, never mind; she had better listen to her husband. She is my friend, and is soon to be my guest, but she has got upon my nerves to-day."
Thus bidden, I could do no less than walk away down the hall to where the Boy stood with his book, leaning against the baluster.
"I've done all I could about the bag," I said. "The people in the post-office seemed hopeful that the big reward would do the trick."
"Thank you. You are very good," he returned. Something in his tone made me look at him closely. There was a change in him, though for my life I could not have told what it was or why it had come; there was ice in his voice, though I had spent nearly two dusty, unwashed hours in his service, while he refreshed himself at leisure.
"I hope it will be all right," I went on, rather heavily. "Look here, that pretty little fairy would like to know you. She's the Contessa di Ravello. Come along and be introduced."
The Boy flung up his head, his blue eyes flashing. "Why am I to be dragged at her chariot wheels?" he demanded.
"Oh, rot, my child. Don't put on airs. Men twice your age would snatch at such a chance."
"I can't tell what I may be capable of when I'm twice my age. It's difficult enough to know myself now. But I know——"
"Come on, do, like the dear Little Old Pal you really are," I cut in. "You don't want to put me in a false position, do you? Besides, I'd like particularly to get your opinion on the Contessa. I may have to ask your advice about something connected with her, later."
This fetched him, though with not too good a grace. "You don't know my name," he said, with a return of impishness, as we walked together towards the Contessa.
"I think that you have the advantage of me in that way, now."
"If you call it an advantage. I had a presentiment you weren't plain mister, so I'm not surprised. You may tell your Countess that my name is Laurence."
"Christian name or 'Pagan' name?"
"Make the Christian name Roy."
In another moment I was introducing Mr. Roy Laurence to the Contessa di Ravello; and as they stood eyeing each other, the fairy Gaeta pulsing with coquetry through all her hot-blooded Italian veins, the Boy aloof and critical, I was struck with the picture that the two figures made.
The Boy had three or four inches more of height than the Contessa, and looked almost tall beside her, though I had thought of him as small. Her round, dimpled face seemed no older than his oval brown one, in this moment of his gravity, and the haughty air of a young prince which he wore now, consciously or unconsciously, had a certain provoking charm for a spoiled beauty used to conquest. The big blue stars which lit his face expressed a resolve not to yield to any blandishment, and this no doubt piqued Gaeta, before whom all the boys and youths at Davos had gone down like grass before the scythe. Helen Blantock came after she had left the place, otherwise she might have had to fight for her rights as queen; but as it was, she had been without rivals and probably had known few dangerous ones elsewhere. Never had I seen her take as much real pains to be charming to a grown man, as she took with this silent boy, during the few moments that her friends spent in wrestling with the landlord. What lamps she lit in the windows of her eyes, suddenly raising their curtains on dazzling glances! What rosy flags she hung out in his honour, on dimpled cheeks; what rich display of pearls and coral her cupid-mouth gave him! but all in vain, so far as any change in his cold young face showed. I had seen it warm for a gleam of light on the wing of a swooping bird, or an effect of cloud-shadow on a mountain, as it would not warm for this galaxy of bewitchments, and his quiet civility was but a sharper pin-prick, I should fancy, to a woman's vanity.
The little scene was not long in playing, however. Soon the Baronessa swept to her friend's side, and bore her away, like a large steam-tug making off against wind and tide with a dainty sailing yacht.
Ignoring the subject of the lady; Boy began questioning me about the business of the bag, thanking me again more cordially for what I had done, when I had answered.
"I must have a bath and change now," said I at last. "At what time shall we dine?"
"We? You will be dining with your new friend."
"She's an old friend, if one counts by time of acquaintance, and charming, as you've seen; still, we're rather tired perhaps, and not up to dinner pitch. I'm not sure but we'd get on better alone together, you and I."
"I've taken a private sitting-room, and I'm going to dine there."
"Will you have me with you?"
"If you like."
"It will be a good opportunity to get your advice."
The Boy did not answer; but when we sat at table, and had talked for a while of indifferent things, he said abruptly: "What were you going to ask me?"
"Your advice as to whether it would be well to fall in love with the little Contessa."
"Has she money?"
"Hang it all, do you think I'm the kind of man to want a woman for her money?"
"I've known you about six days."
"Don't hedge. Can't six days tell you as much as six years—such six days as we've had?"
"Yes. It's true. I would stake a good deal that you're not that kind of man. I don't know why I said it. Something hateful made me. The Contessa is very pretty. Could you—fall in love with her?"
"It would be an interesting experiment to try."
"If you think so, you must already have begun."
"No, not yet. I assure you I have an open mind. But it's an odd coincidence meeting her like this. I was making the fact that she has a house at Monte Carlo an excuse for going down there—sooner or later—as an end to my journey. Now, she is to be in Chamounix, and she intends to invite us both, it seems, to visit her in Aix-les-Bains, where she has taken a villa."
The Boy looked at me suddenly, with a slight start. "She is going to Chamounix?"
"So she says."
"And—she will invite you to visit her at her villa in Aix-les-Bains."
"You, too. You said yesterday you wanted to go to Aix, as you had never been; and we planned an expedition by the mule-path up Mont Revard."
"I know. But—but would you visit the Contessa?"
"We might amuse ourselves. She would be well chaperoned, no doubt by the Baronessa. There's a brother of the Baron's in the background. Probably he'll turn up at Aix. Certainly he will if his relatives have any control over his actions. He's no other, it turns out, than Paolo di Nivoli, the young Italian whose airship invention has been made a fuss about lately. It would be rather a joke to try and cut him out with the Contessa—if one could."
"Oh—cut him out." The Boy seemed thoughtful. "Though you aren't in love with her?"
"Will you go if I do—that is, if she really asks us?"
I expected him to flash out a refusal, but he brooded under a deep shadow of eyelashes for a while, looking half cross, half mischievous, and finally said: "I'll think it over."
A Man from the Dark
"Desperate, proud, fond, sick, . . . rejected by men." —WALT WHITMAN.
As we drank our cafe double, tap, tap, came at the door; a message from the Contessa di Ravello asking if we would not take coffee with her and her friends in their private sitting-room.
I would have preferred to finish my talk with the Little Pal, which had reached an entertaining point in the announcement that he seemed to know me less well since he had heard my name—that names, and past histories, and circumstances were barriers between lives. But the Boy, reluctant a short time ago to be drawn into the Contessa's society, was now apparently willing to give up the tete-a-tete.
We left our coffee, and went to drink the Contessa's, which reached our lips chilled by the silent enmity of her friends. But, whether because their example had been a warning, or because he had suffered a "change, into something new and strange," the Boy was no longer a wet blanket. He did not show the self which I had learned to know in some of its phases, but he was shyly conciliatory with the Contessa, the blue eyes hinting that, if she were persistent, his admiration might be won. Still, he often answered in monosyllables or briefly, when she spoke to him, a smile curving his short upper lip. I could not understand what his manner meant, nor, I am sure, could she; but she was evidently bent on solving the puzzle.
"Do you play tennis?" she asked him.
"Ah, so do I, and well, too, though I'm not English. Lord Lane will tell you that. And you dance, I know."
"You love it? I do."
"I used to."
"That sounds as if you were a hundred, instead of—nineteen, is it not?"
"I'm not quite ninety-nine."
"I should like to dance with you. We are the right size for each other in the dance, are we not?"
"I'd try not to disappoint you."
"Oh, we must have a dance. You love music, I know. One sees it by your eyes. Once, when I asked Lord Lane if he sang or played, he said that he 'had no drawing-room tricks.' Rude of him, n'est-ce pas? But you? Is it that you play?"
"The violin will talk for me, if I coax it."
"Ah, I was sure. We are going to be congenial. But the singing? I see by your face that you sing, though you won't say so. Here is a piano. I will accompany you, if you like, and if we know the same things. Perhaps our voices would be well together."
I was surprised to see the Boy get up and go to the piano. "I will sing if you like; but I accompany myself, always," he said. "I don't sing things that many people know."
For a moment he sat at the piano, as if thinking. Then he, who had never told me that he sang, never even spoken of singing, turned into a young angel, and gripped my heart with a voice as strangely haunting as his eyes and his little brown face. Had he been a girl, I suppose his voice would have been called a deep contralto. As he was a boy—I do not know how to classify it.
I can say only that, while the mellow music rippled from his parted lips, it seemed as if the gates of Paradise had fallen ajar. He sang an old ballad that I had never heard. It was all about "Douglas Gordon," whose story flowed with the tide of a plaintive accompaniment which I think he must have arranged himself: for somehow, it was like him. All the sadness, all the sweetness in this sweet, sad, old world seemed concentrated in the Boy's angel voice, and listening, I was Douglas Gordon, and he was putting my life-sorrow into words. He took my heart and broke it, yet I would not have had him stop. Then, suddenly, he did stop, and the Contessa was in tears. "Bravo! bravo!" she cried, diamonds raining over two spasmodic dimples. "Again; something else."
He sang Christina Rossetti's "Perchance you may remember, perchance you may forget," and the thrill of it was in the marrow of my bones. I had scarcely known before what music could do with me, and the voice of the little Gaeta, following the song, jarred on my ears as she praised the Boy, and pleaded for more.
"I can't sing again to-night," said he. "I'm sorry, but I can sing only when I feel in the mood."
"But you will come with Lord Lane, and stay at my villa, which I have taken at Aix—yes, if only for a few days? The Baron and Baronessa will be with me, too. You are going that way. Lord Lane has told me. Will you come?"
"Is he coming?"
"Lord Lane, tell him that you are."
"You are very good, Contessa——"
"There! You hear, it is settled."
"If—Lord Lane makes you a visit, I will also, as you are kind enough to want me."
Afterwards, when we had bidden the Contessa and her guardian dragons good-night, and it was arranged that we were to stay over to-morrow, on account of the lost bag, I said to the Boy on the way upstairs, "You've made a conquest of the Contessa."
He blushed furiously, looked angry, and then burst out laughing. "Are you jealous?" he asked.
"I ought to be."
"But are you?"
"I haven't had time to analyse my emotions. Why did you never tell me you sang?"
"I wasn't ready—till to-night. Now—I sang for you."
"I thought it was for the Contessa."
"Did you? Well"—with sudden crossness—"you may go on thinking so, if you like. Can she sing?"
"As—better than I can?"
"You must judge for yourself when you hear her."
"You might tell me. But no! I don't want you to, now. It's spoiled. Good-night."
"Good-night. Dream of your conquest."
"Probably she's only trying to—to bring you to the point, by being nice to me. I wonder if you care?"
I would not give the little wretch any satisfaction. I merely laughed, and an odd blue light flashed in his eyes. He was making up his mind to something, for the life of me I could not tell what.
The Contessa and her satellites should have gone on to Chamounix next day, but Gaeta frankly announced her intention of waiting, so that we might make the journey together. They were driving over the Tete Noire, and we would go afoot, to be sure; still, said she, we could keep more or less together, exchanging impressions from time to time, and lunching at the same place. She made me promise, as a reward to her for this delay, that the Boy and I would not take the way of the Col de Balme, by which no carriage could pass. If we did this, our party and hers must part company early in the day, and she would be left to the tender mercies of the Baron and Baronessa for many a triste hour.
"But why should you be imposed upon by them, if they don't amuse you?" I ventured to ask; for Gaeta was so frank about her affairs that one was sometimes led inadvertently to take liberties.
"Oh, it was the brother who amused me, and he amuses me still," replied she, with a moue, and a shrug of her pretty shoulders. "At least, I don't think I shall be tired of him, when I see him again. He is a whirlwind; he carries a woman off her feet, before she knows what is happening, and we like that in a man, we Italians. We adore temperament. I was nice to the Baron and Baronessa for Paolo's sake. He had to go away from Milan, which is my real home, you know—(if I have a home anywhere)—to have a medal for his air-ship, and many honours and dinners given him in Paris; so, without stopping to think, I invited the Baron and Baronessa to visit me in Aix. Then they suggested that we should have a little tour first; and we are having it—Dio mio, so much the worse for me, till I met you! And now they make me feel like a naughty child."
"Will Paolo come also to the villa?" I asked, smiling.
"He has engagements to last a fortnight still. Perhaps afterwards he may run out to Aix."
The Boy's face fell when I told him that I had promised the Contessa to walk along the highroad, over the Tete Noire.
"Innocentina and I——" he began. Then his eyes wandered to Gaeta, who stood with her friends at the other end of the hail. She was looking extremely pretty, and chose that instant to throw a quick glance at me, demanding sympathy for some ennui or other caused by the Baronessa. "Oh, very well," he finished, "it doesn't matter."
He was in suspense all day about his mysteriously important bag. Though handbills had been hastily printed and scattered over the country, there was no certainty as to when we should hear or whether we should hear at all. Late in the evening, however, as we were finishing dinner in the salle-a-manger, at the same table with Gaeta and her friends, a message came that a man desired to see the young monsieur who had advertised for a lost bag.
The Boy excused himself, and jumped up. I should have liked to go with him, but courtesy to the ladies forbade, and I sat still, feeling guilty of disloyalty somehow, nevertheless, because of a look he threw me. It seemed to say, "We were such friends, but a woman has come between. My affairs are nothing to you now."
I had thought that he would be back in time for coffee, but he did not appear, and the curiosity of Gaeta, who had been restless since the Boy's departure, could no longer be kept within bounds. "Do go and see if he has got that wonderful bag," she said. "He might come to tell us!"
I obeyed, nothing loth, but only to learn from the concierge that the young gentleman had gone away with the man who had called.
"Did he leave no message?" I asked.
"No, Monsieur. He talked with the man here in the hall for a few minutes; then he ran upstairs and soon came down again with a cap and coat. Immediately after, he and the man went out together."
"What sort of man was he?"
"An Italian, Monsieur; a very rough-looking peasant-fellow of middle age, poorly dressed in his working clothes. I have never seen him before."
I did not like this description, nor the news the concierge had given. It was nine o'clock, and very dark, for it had begun to rain towards evening, and a monotonous drip, drip mingled with the plash of the fountain in the garden. Grim fancies came knocking at the door of my brain. It was a mad thing for a boy, little more than a child, to go out alone in the night with a stranger, a "rough-looking peasant-fellow," who pretended to know something of the vanished bag; to go out, leaving no word of his intentions, nor the direction he would take. As like as not, the man was a villain who scented rich prey in a tourist offering a reward of five thousand francs for a lost piece of luggage.
As I thought of the brave, innocent little comrade walking unsuspectingly into some trap from which I could have saved him had I been by his side, a sensation of physical sickness came over me.
"How long is it since they went out?" I asked quickly.
"Ten minutes, at most, Monsieur."
I could have shaken the concierge's hand for this good news, for there was hope of catching them up. I was in dinner jacket and pumps, but I did not wait to make a dash upstairs for hat or coat. I borrowed the blue, gold-handed cap of the concierge, not caring two pence for my comical appearance, which would have sent Gaeta into peals of silver laughter, and out into the rain I went, turning up the collar of my jacket.
I had forgotten the Contessa, and my promise to return immediately with tidings from the front. All I thought of was, which direction should I take to find the Boy. Ought I to turn towards the town or away from it?
Before I reached the garden gate, not many metres from the door, I had decided to try the town way; and lest I should be doing the wrong thing and have to rectify my mistake later, I ran as a lamplighter is popularly supposed to run, but doesn't and never did.
The Boy and his companion would be walking, and, if I were on the right track, I was almost sure to catch them up sooner or later at this pace, before they could reach the town and turn off into some side street.
I had not been galloping along through the fresh, grey mud for three hundred metres when I saw two figures moving slowly a few paces ahead. One was small and slender, the other of middle height and strongly built.
"Boy, is that you?" I shouted.
The slim figure turned, and I mumbled a "Thank goodness!"
"Little wretch!" I exclaimed heartily, as I joined the couple ahead. "How could you go off alone like this with a stranger, perhaps a ruffian (he looks it), without leaving any word for me? You deserve to be shaken."
"You wouldn't say he looked a ruffian, if you could see his face. I'm sure he's honest. And as for sending word, I didn't care to disturb you and—your Contessa."
"Hang the—no, of course, I don't mean that. Luckily I was in time to catch you, and——"
"Did the Contessa send you after me, or did——"
"She doesn't know what's become of you. There was no time for politenesses. You gave me some bad moments, little brute. Now, tell me what you're about."
He explained that the peasant (who understood no word of English) was an Italian who had come to Martigny to find work as a road mender, that he had been taken ill and lost his job; that he had tramped back over the St. Bernard to Aosta, near which place he had once lived; that the work he had heard of there was already given to another; and that, walking back to rejoin his family near Martigny, he had found the bag on the Pass. He had brought it home, and had only just learned the address of the owner, as set forth in the handbills.
"Why didn't he bring the bag to you, and claim the reward?" I asked.
"It is at the house of the priest, and the priest has been away all day, visiting a relative in the country somewhere, who is ill, so this man, Andriolo Stefani, couldn't get the bag. But he came to tell me that it was found, and where it was."
"And he pretends to be guiding you to the house of the priest now?"
"No. I'm going to his house—or rather, the room where he and his wife and children live."
"For goodness' sake, why?"
"Because he's refused to accept the reward for finding the bag."
"By Jove, he must have some deep game. What reason did he give, and what excuse did he make, for dragging you off to his lair? It sounds as if he meant to try and kidnap you for a ransom—(these things do happen, you know)—and there are probably others in it besides himself. I don't believe in the priest, nor the wife and children, nor even in his having found the bag."
"He didn't ask me to go to his house. When I spoke of the reward, he said that he couldn't take it, and though I questioned him, would not tell me why, but was evidently distressed and unhappy. Finally he admitted that it was his wife who would not allow him to accept a reward. She had made him promise that he wouldn't. Then I said that I'd like to talk to her, and might I go with him to his house. He tried to make excuses; he had no house, only one room, not fit for me to visit; and the place was a long way off, outside Martigny Bourg; but I insisted, so at last he gave in. Now, do you still think he's the leader of a band of kidnappers?"
"I don't know what to think. There's evidently something queer. I'll talk to him."
During our hurried conversation, the man had walked on a few steps in advance. I called him back, speaking in Italian. He came at once, and now that we were in the town, where here and there a blur of light made darkness visible, I could see his face distinctly. I had to confess to myself at first glance that it was not the face of a cunning villain,—this worn, weather-beaten countenance, with its hollowed cheeks, and the sad dark eyes, out of which seemed to look all the sorrows of the world.
He had found the bag night before last, he said, between the Cantine de Proz and Bourg St. Pierre. It had been lying in the road, in the ruecksack, and he judged by the strap that it had been attached to the back of a man, or a mule. While I questioned him further, trying to get some details of description not given in the handbills, he paused. "There is the priest's house," he said. "There is a light in the window now. Perhaps he has come back."
"We will stop and ask for the bag," said I, watching the face of the man. It did not blench, and I began to wonder if, after all, he might not be honest.
The priest, a delightful, white-haired old fellow, himself of the peasant class, had returned, and from a locked cupboard in his bare little dining-room study produced the much talked of bag, in its ruecksack.
The Boy sprang at it eagerly. So secure had he believed it to be on the grey donkey's back, that he had not been in the habit of taking out the key. It was still in the lock, and, the bag standing on the priest's dinner table, the Boy opened it with visible excitement. Then he dived down into the contents, without bringing them into sight, and a bright colour flamed in his cheeks. "Everything is safe," he said, with a long sigh of relief. "I'm thankful."
He turned to the priest, speaking in French—and his French was very good. "I have offered a large reward to the finder of this bag. But the man will not have it. Can you tell me why, mon pere?"
"I cannot tell you, Monsieur. Doubtless he has a reason which seems to him good," answered the priest, who evidently knew that reason, but was pledged not to tell. "He and his family have not been in my parish long, but I believe them to be worthy people. I have been trying to get work for Andriolo, since he has been well again, and able to undertake it, but so far I have not been fortunate."
The Boy took a handful of gold from his pocket. "For the poor of your parish, mon pere, if you will be good enough to accept it for them," said he, with great charm and simplicity of manner. The old priest flushed with pleasure, saying that he had many poor, and was constantly distressed because he could do so little. This would be a Godsend. I glanced at the Italian, and saw that his weary, dark eyes were fixed with a passionate wistfulness upon the gold. This look, his whole appearance, bespoke poverty, yet he had deliberately refused five thousand francs, a fortune to most men of his condition. Now that he was vouched for by the priest, extreme curiosity took the place of suspicion in my mind.
I hid the blue cap of the concierge behind my back, in the priest's house, but the Boy saw it, and saw that I was drenched with rain. I must have been a figure for laughter, but he did not laugh. "You see, I was in a hurry," I excused myself, under a long, comprehending gaze of his. "It's your fault if I look an ass."
"You didn't stop even to go and get a hat," he said. "You came out in the rain just as you were, and you ran—I heard you running, behind me. But—but of course it's because you're kind-hearted. You would have done just the same for anybody. For—the Contessa——"
"Not for the Baronessa, anyhow," said I. "I should have stopped for a mackintosh and even goloshes, had her safety been hanging in the balance."
Then we both laughed, and Stefani, who by this time was showing us the way through the rain to his own home, looked over his shoulder, surprised and self-conscious, as if he feared that we were laughing at him.
On the outskirts of straggling Martigny Bourg, he stopped before a gloomy, grey stone house with four rows of closed wooden shutters, which meant four floors of packed humanity. Even Martigny has its tenements for poor workers, or those who would be workers if they could, and this was one of them.
We followed Andriolo Stefani up four flights of narrow stone stairs, picking our way by testing each step with a cautious foot, since light there was none. Arrived at the top floor, we groped along a passage to the back of the house, and our guide opened a door. There was a yellow haze, which meant one candle-flame fighting for its life in the dark, and we waited outside, while the Italian spoke for a moment to someone we could not see. There came a note of protest in a woman's voice, but the man's beat it down with some argument, and then Stefani returned to ask us in.
Two women sat in a room almost bare of furniture, and both tried to rise on our entrance; but one, who was young as years go, had her lap full of little worn shoes, and the other, who looked older than the allotted span, was nursing a wailing baby, half undressed.
I found myself strangely embarrassed with the coarse guilt of intrusion. I was suddenly oppressed with self-conscious awkwardness, wishing myself anywhere else, and not knowing what to do or say. In all probability I looked haughty and disagreeable, though I felt humble as a worm. How the Boy felt I have no means of knowing; I can only tell how he acted. One would have thought that he had known these poor people all his life. I lingered near the door, taking notes of the sad picture; the two rough wooden boxes, in which slept three little dark children, all apparently of exactly the same size; the mattress on the floor near by for the parents; the open door leading into a dark garret, where, no doubt, the grandmother crept to sleep; the shelves on the wall, bare save for a few dishes of peasant-made pottery; the pile of dried mud on the tiled floor, which the young mother had been carefully scraping with a knife from the little worn boots in her lap; the rickety, uncovered table, with a bunch of endives on a plate, and a candle guttering in a bottle. This was the picture, redeemed from squalor only by the lithograph of the Virgin on the wall, draped with fresh wild flowers, and its perfect cleanliness; this was the home of the supposed "kidnapper," the man who had refused to accept five thousand francs as a reward.
While I stood, stiff and uncomfortable, the Boy went forward quickly, begging the two women not to rise. "Poor, dear little baby!" he said in Italian, looking down at the dark scrap of humanity in the grandmother's arms. "She is ill, isn't she?"
Now, how did he know that the creature was a "she"? If it were a guess, it was a lucky one, for both women replied together that the little girl had been ailing since yesterday. They could not tell what was the matter. They had hoped that she would be better to-day, but instead, she seemed worse; and with this, a glittering film which had been overspreading the mother's eyes, suddenly dissolved into silently falling rain. There were no sobs, no gaspings from this tired woman, too used to sorrow to rail against it, yet it was plain to see that her heart was breaking. Still, life must go on: and so, while she grieved for a little one she feared to lose, she cleaned the boots of those she hoped to keep.
"Have you called a doctor for her?" asked the Boy.
"The good priest is half a doctor. He came to see the bambina."
"What did he say?"
"Oh, Signor, we cannot give her all the things he said she should have, nor can he help us to them, for he has much to do for others, and little to do it with."
"Yet you would not let your husband take the reward I offered for finding my bag. He is out of work, and you are poor; you have four children to feed, and one of them is ill. Why will you not have the money? I have come to ask you that. You see, I want you to have it, for the bag is worth all I've offered and even more to me."
"Ah, Signor, how can I tell you? It was to save my baby I refused."
"Please tell. You need not mind saying anything to me—or to my friend. We are interested and want to help you."
Now the young woman's tears were falling fast, but silently still, as if she knew that her heart-break was unimportant in the great scheme of things, and she wished to make no noise about it. Her lips moved, but no words came.
"She will not speak against me," Stefani said suddenly, "nor will my poor mother. But I will tell you the story. I meant to steal your bag, and sell the gold things and all the valuables that were in it. It was a great temptation, for we had scarce a penny left, and there was no work anywhere. I was tired, tired all through to my heart, Signor, that night on the Pass, and then I found the bag. I brought it home, and charged Emilia and my mother to say nothing to anyone outside. The children were at school, so they did not see, or they might have lisped out something, and set people talking. The two women begged me to give up the bag, and try for a reward in case one should be offered, but I was desperate. I said that the gold was worth more than anything that would be offered—the gold, and some jewelry in a little box. I knew a man who would buy of me, and I had gone out to find him yesterday, when, as if Heaven had sent a curse upon us for my sin, the bambina was struck down with this illness—a terrible aching of her little head, and a fever. When I came home to take away the things out of the bag, my wife begged me on her knees, for the child's sake, to change my mind; and at last I did, for who can hold out against the prayers of those he loves?
"Quickly, lest I should repent, I carried the bag to our priest, and told him all. He thought as a penance for the sin which had been in my heart, I should take no reward if it were offered, though he did not lay this upon me as a command. Emilia was with him, for, said she, Our Lady will save the baby if we make this great sacrifice. Now you know all the truth."
"And I know that you are good people—better than I would have been in your places—better than anyone I know. There's no credit in keeping straight if one's not tempted to go wrong, is there? I won't offend you by begging that you'll take the reward. I offer you no reward, but I am going to give your children a present, and you are to use it for the comfort of your family. I have enough with me, because, you see, I had to get something ready to-day, in case the reward had to be paid. Now, it isn't needed for that, so I can use it in this other way. And you have done all that is right, and you would hurt me very much if you refused to let me do what I wish. It is always wrong to hurt people, you know. And you must send me word early to-morrow morning before I go, whether the baby is better. I feel sure, somehow, that she will be."
Then a roll of notes was thrust into one of the little boots, still caked with mud, which the mother kept mechanically in her hand. There was a pat on the shoulder, too, and an instant later the Boy's arm was hooked into mine; I was whisked away with him in as rapid a flight as if he had been a thief, and not a benefactor.
"How much did you give them, young Santa Claus?" I asked, when he had me out in the rain again.
"About one thousand three hundred dollars. I can't stop to calculate it for you in pounds or francs. I'm too excited. Oh, how wet you are, poor Man! And all for me! But wasn't it splendid! And I just know that baby'll be better to-morrow. You see if she isn't."
She was. The news was brought to us early in the morning by a poor man half out of his wits with joy and gratitude.
The Little Game of Flirtation
"To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you." —WALT WHITMAN.
The Contessa had to be pacified, but she adored romance, and she was pleased to say that the story of the bag, lost and found, which I—not the Boy—told her, came under that category. She was in the best of tempers for a day of travelling, and saw us off, before her friends were dressed and ready to begin their drive to Chamounix.
"They are taking as long as they can, on purpose," she whispered to me, with the air of a naughty child planning mischief behind the backs of its elders. "Anything to keep me to themselves and away from you! But you are walking, and the way is uphill for a very long time, so the hotel people say. We shall catch you up, and just to spite the Di Nivolis, if nothing more, I shall beg first one of you, then the other, to let me give you a lift. Neither of you must refuse, or I shall cry, and no man has ever made me cry yet."
"I'm sure no man ever will," I answered promptly.
"And no boy?" she asked, with a long-lashed glance at my companion, who had given no answer save a smile.
"I wonder how you would look when you cried, Contessa?" was the only reply the little wretch deigned, but instead of offending, it appeared to amuse her. She watched our cavalcade out of the hotel garden (the ruecksack once more on Souris' faithless back), and the silver bells of her laughter lightly rang us down the road.
Again we had to pass through Martigny Bourg, and presently, turning aside from the road which had led me to the Grand St. Bernard, we took the way on the right, almost at once feeling the rise of the hill. Steeper and steeper it grew, and warmer and warmer we, though the day was young. Often we were glad of the excuse the view gave us to stop and look back, down into the wide bowl of the Rhone Valley, with a heat-haze of quivering blue, creating an effect of great distance, like a "gauze drop" on the stage.
Surely this was the longest lull on earth, and when we reached the top—if we ever did—we should find that we had been climbing Jack's Beanstalk, coming out into a different world! Up and up we dragged for hours, the Boy determined not to take to donkey-back, despite the protestations of Innocentina, emphatic, but slightly modified by constant association with the man she was engaged in converting.
Sometimes we were ministered to by small maidens, with marvellously neat, sleek hair, who sprang up under our eyes, apparently from rabbit-holes, their arms hooked into the handles of big fruit baskets which might easily have been their bathtubs or cradles. If we seemed inclined to turn away with an expressionless gaze, the little creatures forged after us with a determined trot, laid back with tiny brown hands the dainty white napkin hiding the basket's contents, and tempted us with purple plums or mellow pears. In the end, we invariably succumbed to these wiles, even when we had sickened at the thought of fruit, and were obliged surreptitiously to hide our purchases by the wayside, when the sturdy young vendors' backs were turned.
We carried our panamas in our hands, and the Boy's short chestnut curls clung to his forehead in damp rings, making him look absurdly childish. I wondered at myself for discussing with eager interest, as I often did, so many of life's unanswerable questions with such a slip of boyhood. Still, I knew that I should often do it again, while we remained together, and that he would know how to measure wits with mine, to my disadvantage, compelling always my respect for his opinions, unless he happened to be in an inconsequential or impish mood.
After a long climb, we called a halt at the most attractive of several little wayside chalets we had passed. Each was thoughtfully provided with an awning or wooden roof stretching across the road to give shade to travellers, who were lured to pause by bottles of bright-coloured syrups, wine, and beer displayed on flower-decked tables. Our chosen chalet made a specialty of milk, and a view. There was a rough balcony at the back, built over a sheer precipice, and far beneath, the Rhone Valley spread itself for our eyes. We sat resting, with glasses of rich yellow milk in our hands, when a voice under the road-shelter in front roused us from reverie. It was the Contessa greeting Joseph and Innocentina, who were reposing on a bench in the delicious shade.
"I was just thinking it was rather queer they hadn't caught us up," I said, rising; and then I asked myself why I had said it; for, when I came to cross-question my own thoughts, they had to own up that the Contessa had not been in them.
"Oh, it was the Contessa you were thinking of, then, when you sat looking as if you were a thousand miles away, and had left your body behind to keep your place?" said the Boy, jumping up quickly. "Well, here she is; your mind may be at ease."
We returned to the front of the house, through the neat, bare "living-room," the Boy a step or two ahead of me, as if anxious to greet the new arrivals. Off came his hat, and he stood leaning against the carriage, looking up into the warm brown eyes of Gaeta, which were warmer and brighter than ever because of this sudden show of devotion.
Had the magnetism of her coquetry fired him? I wondered, it would be strange if it were not so, for she was beautiful, and her manner flattering to a boy so young. Somehow, my spirits were dashed at the thought that my companion's last words to me might be explained by jealousy of an older man with a pretty woman. It would be hard if it were to come to this between us. Though I had talked of going to see her in Monte Carlo, the butterfly Contessa was no more to me than a delicate pastel on someone else's wall, or a gay refrain, which charms the ear without haunting the memory. I would not interfere with the Boy; if he chose to encourage Gaeta to flirt with him, he need not fear me; but I had liked to think he valued my comradeship. Now, a fancy for this child-woman would rob me of him. Instead of being piqued by the Contessa's growing preference for the Boy, as I ought to have been by all the rules of the game of flirtation, I was conscious of anger against her as an intruder.
This feeling increased almost to sulkiness when the Boy was invited to take a seat in the carriage beside the gloomy Baron, and accepted promptly.
The driving party had been delayed a long time in starting, Gaeta explained, making large eyes which blamed her friends for everything; and the driver had brought his horses slowly, oh, so slowly, up the long hill, the stupid fellow. But now the carriage flashed ahead, and I was left to tramp on alone, while the Contessa and the Boy flirted, and Joseph and Innocentina bickered, all alike unmindful of me.
We lunched at the Col de Forclaz, where the hill, tired of going up, ran down to another valley. There was a godlike assemblage of mountains, white and blue, mountains as far as the eye could reach, and I had a thought or two which I would have liked to exchange for some of the Boy's. But if he had ever really had any thoughts, save for the fun of the moment, he had the air of forgetting them all for Gaeta. When, in a tone of unenthusiastic politeness, she asked if I would not take my friend's place in the carriage for a while when we started on again, out of pure spite against the little wretch who had dropped me for her I said that I would.
I could not see the Boy's face, to make sure if he were disappointed, but I hoped it. As for myself, I would fain have walked. In a scene of such exalted beauty, Gaeta's little quips and quirks struck a wrong note. Sitting with my back to the horses, I could see the Boy walking on behind, his face raised mountain-ward and sky-ward, and I longed to know of what he was thinking, for evidently he had left his aggravating, "awfully-jolly-don't-you-know" mood in the carriage with the Contessa.
The Baron and his wife disputed volubly about the date of one of Paolo's grand dinners in Paris; Gaeta yawned, and I was stricken with dumbness. I could think of nothing to say which she would think worth hearing. Soon, the tremendously steep descent into the valley gave me the best of excuses to jump down and relieve the horses, which the coachman was leading. Somehow, I don't quite know how, I fell back a good distance behind the carriage, and then I found myself so near the Boy, who had been slowly following, that it would have been rude not to join him. After all, we had no quarrel, yet oddly enough we could not take up the thread of our intercourse exactly where it had been broken off. There seemed to be a knot or a tangle in it, which would have to be smoothed out.
It was a wholly irrelevant incident which untied the knot, and left us as we had been, though there was no reason for it but a laugh which we had together.
The thing came about in this wise. We arrived at a small hotel which boasted a garden, and was famous as a view-point. From the door a carriage containing a man was about to drive away. The man was approaching middle age, and had an air of quiet self-reliance which redeemed him from insignificance. He was plainly dressed, in clothes which were not new, and altogether he did not appear to be a personage who, from the hotel-keeper's point of view, would be of supreme importance. Yet the landlord and another besieged the quiet man with compliments and pleadings, to which he did not seem inclined to listen. Bowing gravely, he told his coachman to drive on, and in a moment had passed us as we stood in the road.
But when he had gone, the landlord and his assistant still had no eyes for us. "Mark my words," exclaimed the former, in a tone of anguish, "we shall lose our star."
Were they astrologers, that they should fear this fate?
Our curiosity was excited, and seeing a head-waiterly person, who wore a mien between awe and stifled amusement, I called for beer which I did not wish to drink. It was served on a table in the shady garden, and I enquired if the carriage just out of sight had contained a troublesome guest.
"Troublesome is not the word, Monsieur," replied the waiter. "But a thing has happened. That gentleman whom you saw, arrived a few days ago, giving the name of Karl. He took the cheapest room in the house; he drank one of the cheapest wines, having satisfied himself that the price was within his means. To-day, he said that he was leaving, and asked for his bill. When it was made out, the wine came to a franc more than he thought it ought. 'I do not complain,' said he to our patron; 'if that is the price of the wine, I will pay, but I was told at the table it was less. I do not consider the wine good enough for the price.' This vexed the patron, because one does not think the more of a person who haggles over a franc, especially if that person has studied cheapness in all ways during his visit. Perhaps the patron spoke somewhat irritably, for he did not care whether the monsieur ever came back to his house or not. Then the monsieur paid the bill, without another word, and was going away, when a German gentleman, who had been sitting here in the garden, said to the patron: 'Do you know who that is?' No,' replied our patron, 'I do not know, nor do I care.' 'It is Baedeker,' said the gentleman. This was terrible; and the patron flew to correct the little mistake about the wine, with a thousand apologies; but the monsieur would not have his money back, and you saw him drive away. Now, it is possible that our hotel will no longer keep its star, and that would be no less than a catastrophe."
Evidently, what his cherished peacock-feather is to a Chinese mandarin, that is a Baedeker star to a hotel-keeper; and the Boy and I were so tickled at the little tragi-comedy that we forgot, as we walked on side by side, that we had been upon official terms only.
Again we were struck by the extraordinary individuality which differentiates one valley or mountain-pass from another. We had seen nothing like this; nothing, perhaps, so purely beautiful. One could not imagine that winter snow and ice could still the pulse of summer here. It was as if we wandered from one green glade to another in fairyland, where all the little people who owned the magic land had turned themselves hurriedly into strangely delicate ferns and bluebells to watch us, laughing, as we went by.
The village of Trient lay in deep shadow when we reached it, and found the others waiting for us in the carriage in front of the chief hotel; but there was no gloom in the shadow; it was only a deeper shade of green, with a hint of transparent blue streaked across it. Another remote, dream-village on the long list of places where I really must stay for a lazy summer month—when I have time! The list was growing long now, almost worryingly long, and the Boy felt it so, too, for he also had a list, and strange to say, it was much the same as mine.
We had tea, and were vaguely surprised to see a number of people of our own kind, most of them English and American, engaged in the same occupation, and evidently at home in the place. Trient was on their list as well as ours, and now, if they liked, they could cross it off, and begin with the next place.
The Contessa thought the Boy looked tired, and urged him to drive again, but though his manner was still flirtatious he found an excuse to keep to his feet. He was not really tired, not a bit; how could one be tired in so much beauty? The poor horses were fagged though, for the carriage was heavy; he would not add to its weight.
"You are getting rather white about the gills," I said to him when the driving party had once more left us behind. "Why didn't you take up your flirtation where you left it off, like a serial story to be 'continued in your next'? Your weight is nothing."
"It wasn't that, really," replied the Boy.
"Do you remember why I wanted to come over the Tete Noire?"
"To have the sensation of Mont Blanc suddenly bursting upon you."
"Well, I—to tell the truth, I had a whim—just a whim, and nothing more—to be with you and not with the Contessa when the time for that sensation should come."
My heart warmed; but perhaps I was flattering myself unduly. "You were afraid that her fascinations might overpower those of Mont Blanc, I suppose, whereas I am a mere stock or stone?"
"That's one way of putting it," replied he calmly. But when the sensation did come, he caught my arm, with a quick-drawn breath, and no word following.
Our worship of other mountains had been a serving of false gods. There was the one White Truth, dwarfing all else into insignificance; not a mere mountain, but a world of snow sailing moon-like in full sky. It was, indeed, as if the moon, gleaming white and bathed in radiance, had come to pay Earth a visit. Surely it would not stay; surely it was a secret that she had come, and we had found it out, just when this great dark rock-door through which we looked, opened by accident to show the sight. But if it were a secret, there was no fear that we would ever tell it, for it soared beyond words.
The first glimpse gave this impression; afterwards we could not have recalled it if we had tried. We grew used to the white Majesty which faced us, by-and-bye, as alas! one does grow used to beauty while one has it within reach of the eye. But just as the Boy had begun to confess himself tired, and to lag in his walk, resting an arm on my shoulder, a new wonder came, like a draught of tonic wine. Sunset, with King Midas' touch, transformed the whole mountain to gold, so that it burned like a lamp to light the world, against a violet sky. In the foreground was a low rampart of green mountain, down which poured a huge glacier like an arrested cataract. It glimmered with a faint radiance, greenish-blue, and pale as the gleam of a glow-worm. The violet of the sky deepened to amethyst-purple, and the snow on the waving line of mountains turned from gold to pink, as if there had been a sudden rain of rose leaves.
For a long time lasted the changing play of jewelled lights, and then the magic colour was swallowed at a gulp by the descending night.
Far away, and far down in the deep valley, the lights of Chamounix and its satellite villages sparkled like a troupe of fallen stars. They lay in a bright heap, clustered together; and Innocentina, coming up with us at this moment, said that they were like raisins sunk together at the bottom of a pudding. The late rain had set all the little torrents talking, and we were silent, listening to their gossip of the mountains' secrets.
"Thou art past the tyrant's stroke." —SHAKESPEARE.
We seemed to have formed a habit, the Boy and I, of steering always for a Hotel Mont Blanc, if there were one in a town; so that now we had come to look upon a hostelry with such a name as a sort of second home, a daughter of a mother house. There were still two other reasons why we should select the Mont Blanc in Chamounix: the first, because the Contessa was going there and had asked us to do likewise; the second, because at Martigny we had seen an advertisement of the hotel which stated that it was situated in a "vaste parc avec chamois."
Our imagination pictured an ancient chateau, altered for modern uses, shut away from the outer world in a mysterious forest of dark pines, where wild chamois sported gracefully at will, leaping across chasms from one overhanging rock to another.
It was long past twilight when our little procession of four human beings and three beasts of burden straggled through a lighted gateway which we had been told to enter for the Hotel Mont Blanc. With one blow our ancient castle was shattered. At a hundred metres distant from the street rose an enormous modern hotel, blazing with light at every window. Where was the vast park with its crowding pines and its ravines for the wild chamois? It must be somewhere, since the advertisement certified its existence, and so must the chamois. Perhaps the forest lay behind the hotel; but the Boy was too tired to care, and to us both baths, food, and rest were for the moment worth more than parks or chamois. The hotel struck a high note of civilisation, and I had seen nothing so fine since London or Paris. The Boy and I dined late and sumptuously, tete-a-tete, for the hot sun and the long drive had sent Gaeta to bed, chastened with a headache; and, weary as he was, the Little Pal had pluck enough left to suggest an appointment for early next morning. "I shall want to know how Mont Blanc looks from my window, so I won't waste my time in bed," said he. "Besides, I'm rather keen to see the chamois, aren't you? The only one I've ever met was stuffed, and rather moth-eaten. He was in a dime museum in New York."
I was up at half-past six next day, and at my window, where Mont Blanc in early sunshine smote me in the face with its nearness. A sudden longing took me, as the longing for a great white lamp takes a moth, to fly at it, or, in other words, to get myself to the top. I had never "done" any Swiss ascents, though I knew almost every peak and pinnacle of rock in Cumberland and Wales, and it seemed to me that I should be a muff to miss the chance of such a climb as this. By the time I had dressed, the thing was decided. I would see about guides, and try to arrange at once for the ascent.
The thought had joy in it, and I ran downstairs, whistling the "Alpine Maid." The Boy and I had settled overnight that we would drink our morning coffee and eat our rolls together, at a quarter to eight, long before the Contessa or her friends had opened their eyes; but the appointed time was not yet come, and I had it in mind to make enquiries concerning my excursion, when I almost stumbled against the Boy, coming in at the front door.
"I've been out in the park," said he, when we had exchanged by way of greeting a "Hello, Boy" and "Hello, Man."
"Meet any chamois?"
"Honour bright? An inspection of the park from my window led me to fear that they must be an engaging myth. There's a fine big garden, with a lot of trees in it, but as for rocks or chamois——"
"There are both. Come out and I'll show you."
I went, walking beside the Boy along one well-kept path after another, until suddenly the bubble delusion broke. In a cage stood or sat, in various attitudes of bored dejection, five melancholy little animals with horns, and singularly large, prominent eyes. Their aspect begged pardon for their degradation, as they turned their backs with weak scorn upon a toy rock in the centre of their prison. "We have reason to believe that we are well connected," they seemed to bleat, "because there is an ancient legend in our household that we are chamois, but you must not judge the family by us."
"I believe," said the Boy pitifully, "they've degenerated so far now, that, if one gave them Mont Blanc to bound upon, they wouldn't know what to do with it."
"I would, however," said I, full of my project, "and I'm thinking of trying."
"What do you meant" asked the Boy, looking rather startled.
"Let's have breakfast out of doors on a little table under the trees, and I'll tell you. Here's one in the shade, and away from the—er—a certain chamois-ness in the air." I pulled up chairs, and raised my hand to a hovering waiter. "What I mean to say is," I went on, "that I'm going to make the ascent as soon as I can arrange it. You won't mind waiting for me a couple of days, will you?—or, of course, you can travel with the Contessa if you like. No doubt she would be delighted to have you."
"You're going up—Mont Blanc?"
"I am, my Kid."
"Because—you might be killed."
"Good heavens, one would think I was Icarus, gluing a pair of wax wings on to my shoulder-blades for a flight into ether. I'm not exactly a novice at the game, you know, though I haven't done any snow-climbing. Why, you little donkey, you look pale. What's the matter with you?"
"Do you know what happened this morning—or rather last night?" the Boy replied to my question with another. "Did any of the hotel people tell you?"
"No. Don't be mysterious before breakfast. It isn't good for the digestion."
"Don't joke. I wasn't going to say anything about it till afterwards, in case you hadn't heard; but now I will. The femme de chambre told me. The news has just come that a young guide has died of exhaustion on the mountain, between the Observatory and the Grands Mulets. Two others who were with him had to leave him lying dead, after dragging the body down a long way."
At this inappropriate moment, our coffee, rolls, and honey were set before us, and the waiter, being an accomplished linguist, like most of his singularly gifted and enterprising kind, had heard and understood the last sentence. Bursting with gruesome information, he could not resist lightening himself of the burden, for our benefit and his own. "You can see the dead man lying on the snow, far up on the mountain," said he eagerly, "if you go into the town and look through one of the telescopes. I have seen him already; he is like a small, dark packet on the white ground, wrapped in his coat."
My appetite for breakfast suddenly dwindled, but not so my appetite for the climb. I was very sorry that a man had died on the mountain, but I could not bring him to life again by remaining on low levels, and so I remarked when the Boy asked me if I were still in the same mind concerning the ascent. "I shall see about a guide directly after breakfast," said I, "and when you hear a cannon fired in the town announcing the arrival of a party at the top of Mont Blanc, you will know it is an echo of my shout of Excelsior!"
"No, I won't know it," returned the Boy obstinately. "For one thing, the cannon might be fired for someone else, and besides, I won't be here."
"Oh, you'll go on with the Contessa? But I shouldn't be surprised if she were good-natured enough to wait at Chamounix to congratulate me when I come down."
"No doubt she thinks enough of you to do that. But what I mean is this: if you go up Mont Blanc, I'm going too."
"Nonsense! You'll do nothing of the kind. You are a very plucky chap, but you're not a Hercules yet, whatever you may develop into ten years from now. No minors are permitted to ascend Mont Blanc."
"That's nonsense, if you like! I shall go if you do."
"I won't take you."
"I don't ask you to. I shan't start until after you've gone, so, you see, you'll have no power to prevent me."
"You are simply talking rot, my dear boy. Good heavens, you'd die of mountain sickness or exhaustion before you were half-way up."
"Perhaps. I know very little about my ability as a climber, for I've never made any big ascents, though I've scrambled about in the mountains a little at home."
"It would be madness for you to attempt such a thing. Why, don't you know it taxes the endurance of a strong man? You've only lately recovered from an illness; you told me so yourself. I shan't allow you to——"
"You're not my keeper, you know."
"But we are friends, pals. I ask you, as a great favour, to be sensible, and——"
"I asked you as a great favour not to go up Mont Blanc. Things happen. I have a feeling that something might happen to you. I should be—wretched while you were gone. I couldn't sit still under the suspense, feeling as I do. So I would follow your example."
"There'd be no danger for me. There might be death for you."
"Well, then, you can save my life if you like, by not going. If you don't go, I won't."
"Of all the brutal tyrants who have tyrannised over mankind——"
"I heard you say once that you would like to have been a professional tyrant. Why shouldn't I qualify for the part?"
"You are cruel to put me in such a position."
"You are cruel to make me do it, for your own selfish amusement."
"By Jove! You talk like an exacting woman!"
The blood rushed to his face so hotly that it forced water into the brilliant eyes of wild-chicory blue.
"If I were a woman I don't think I would be an exacting one. I should only want people I—liked, to do things because they cared about me, otherwise favours would be of no value. We're pals, as you say, great pals, but if you don't care enough——"
"Oh, hang it all, Kid, I'll give the thing up," I broke in, crossly. "I'll potter about with you and the Contessa in Chamounix, and take some nice, pretty, proper walks. But all the same, you're a little brute."
"Do you hate me?"
"Not precisely. But if I stop down here, Satan will certainly find mischief for my idle hands to do. I shall try to take your Contessa away from you, perhaps."
"Oh, will you? Then I shall try to keep her; and we shall see which is the better man."
He rose from the table with a little swagger, ruffling it gaily in his triumph over me; and so young, so small he seemed, to be boasting of his manhood and his prowess in the warfare of love, that I burst out laughing.
"Come on," I said, "let's go and have a look round Chamounix, since there's no better sport to be had."
So we strolled out of the vaste parc avec chamois into the streets of the gay and charming little town, lying like a bright crystal at the foot of Mont Blanc. Round each of several big telescopes under striped canvas umbrellas, was collected a crowd. We could guess at what they were looking. "Shall we stop and see that piteous dark packet lying lonely on the snow?" I asked, pausing. But the Boy hurried on. "No, no," he said, "I should feel as if I had been spying on the dead through a keyhole. I want to buy something at the shops."
"And I want to see the statue of Horace de Saussure, the first man who ever got to the top of Mont Blanc," said I, with reproachful meaning in my tone.
The shops were almost as attractive as those of Lucerne, and gave an air of modernity and civilisation to the little place, which would have been out of the picture, had it not contrived to suggest the piquancy of contrast. The Boy spent a hundred francs for a silver chamois poised upon the apex of a perilous peak of uncut amethysts, mounted on ebony, and I was witty at the expense of his purchase, likening it to the white elephant of Instantaneous Breakfasts et Cie., which I had long ago cast behind me.
"You will be throwing your chamois away in a day or two," I prophesied, "or sending it back to our landlord to add to his collection of animals."
"You will see that I shan't throw it away," the Boy returned, and insisted upon carrying the parcel in his hand, instead of having it sent from the shop to the hotel. When we had learned something of the town we sauntered homeward; and seated in the vaste parc with a novel and a red silk parasol, we found Gaeta. "Where have you been so early?" she asked.
"To find a burnt-offering for your shrine," said the Boy; and tearing off the white wrappings, he gave her the silver chamois.
The Little Rift within the Lute
"There comes a mist, and a weeping rain, And nothing is ever the same again; Alas!" —GEORGE MACDONALD.
We devoted three days to some exquisite excursions, which more than half consoled me for sacrificing Mont Blanc to make a tyrant's holiday, and then decided to push on to Aix-les-Bains, stopping on the way for a glimpse of Annecy.
The Contessa had planned to go from Chamounix to Aix by rail with her friends, but she had either fallen in love with our mode of travelling or pretended it. A hint to the Boy, and Fanny-anny was placed at her disposal for a ride from Chamounix to Annecy, a lady's saddle being easily picked up in a town of shops which miss no opportunities. As for the Baron and Baronessa, it was plain to see the drift of their minds. So angry were they at the change of programme, that it would have been a satisfaction to quarrel with Gaeta, and leave her in a huff. But their devotion to Paolo, which was almost pathetic, forbade them this form of self-indulgence. They curbed their annoyance with the bit of common-sense, though it galled their mouths, and consented to drive to Annecy in a carriage provided by Gaeta for their accommodation. They even constrained themselves to be civil to the Boy and me, though their heavy politeness had the electrical quality of a lull before a storm. How that storm would break I could not foresee, but that it would presently burst above our heads I was sure.
There was no longer a question that Boy was hot favourite in the race for Gaeta's smiles. There might have been betting on me for "place," but it would have been foolish to put money on my chances as winner. The young wretch scarcely gave me a chance for a word with the Contessa, for if I walked on the left he walked on the right of her as she rode, his little brown hand on the new saddle, which had taken the place of the old one sent on to Annecy by grande vitesse. I would have surrendered, being too lazy for a struggle, had I not been somewhat piqued by the Boy's behaviour. He had affected not to care for Gaeta at first, and had even feigned annoyance at the temporary addition to our party, while in reality he could have had little genuine wish for my society, or he would not now betray such eagerness in the game he was playing. The vague sense of wrong I suffered gave me a wish for reprisal of some sort, and the only one convenient at the moment was to prevent the offender from having a clear course. I found a certain mean pleasure in stirring the Boy to jealousy by reviving, when I could, some half-dead ember of Gaeta's former interest in me, and his face showed sometimes that my assiduity displeased him.
This was encouragement to persevere, and I praised the Contessa to him when we happened to be alone together. "You have a short memory it seems," said he. "You told me not so long ago that you'd been in love with a girl who jilted you. Have you forgotten her already?"
I winced under this thrust, but hoped that the Boy did not see it. His stab reminded me that I had found very little time lately to regret Miss Blantock, now Lady Jerveyson; and Molly Winston's words recurred to me: "If I could only prove to you that you aren't and never have been in love with Helen." I had retorted that to accomplish this would be difficult, and she had confidently replied that she would engage to do it, if I would "take her prescription." I had taken her prescription, and—indisputably the wound had become callous, though I was not prepared to admit that it had healed. However, if I had ceased actively to mourn the grocer's triumph, it was not Gaeta who had wrought the magic change. What had caused it I was myself at a loss to understand, but I did not wish to argue the matter with the Boy. He was welcome to think what he chose.
"Hearts are caught in the rebound sometimes, if for once a proverb can be right," said I evasively; though a few weeks ago, when Molly had been constantly alluding to her friend Mercedes, I had told myself that no one could achieve such a feat with mine.
To this suggestion the Boy made no response, save to tighten his lips, resolving, I supposed, that if hearts were flying about like shuttlecocks, his battledore should be ready to catch the Contessa's.
Our road from Chamounix to Annecy led us past gorges and over high precipices and among noble mountains, but my mind was no longer in a condition to receive or retain strong impressions of natural beauty. I was irritable and "out of myself," vainly wishing back the days when the Boy and I, undisturbed by feminine society, had travelled tranquilly, side by side, giving each other thought for thought.
"Nothing can be as it has been; Better, so call it, only not the same,"
Browning said; and so, I feared, it would be after this with me.
We were all to stay at Annecy for a night and a day, the Contessa having announced that she and her friends would stop too; then Gaeta and the others were to go on to Aix-les-Bains by rail, and the Boy and I were to follow on foot, attended by our satellites. Later, we were to spend a few days at the Contessa's villa and get upon our way again, journeying south. But it did not seem to me that my little Pal and I would ever be as we had been before, even though we walked from Aix-les-Bains all the way down to the Riviera shoulder to shoulder. I had the will to be the same, but he was different now; and though we left Gaeta in the flesh at her villa, entertaining guests, Gaeta in the spirit would still flit between us as we went. The Boy would be thinking of her; I should know that he was thinking of her, and—there would be an end of our confidences.
The way, though kaleidoscopic with changing beauties, seemed long to Annecy. By the time that we arrived, after two days' going, the Contessa had eyes or dimples or laughter for no one but the Boy. Sometimes he was seized with sudden moods of rebellion against his new slavery, and was almost rude to her, saying things which she would not have forgiven readily from another, but the child-woman appeared to find a keen delight in forgiving him. Seeing the preference bestowed upon the young American, Paolo's brother and sister were inclined to make common cause with me.
In the garden of the old-fashioned hotel at Annecy where we all took up our headquarters, they came and encamped beside me, at a table near which I sat alone, smoking, after our first dinner in the place. A moment later Gaeta passed with the Boy, pacing slowly under the interlacing branches of the trees.
"I believe that youth to be a fortune-hunter!" exclaimed the thin, dark Baron.
"You're wrong there," said I, "he's very rich."
"At all events, it is ridiculous, this flirtation," exclaimed the plump Baronessa. "He is a mere child. Gaeta is making a fool of herself. You are her friend. You should see this and put a stop to the affair in some way."
"As to that, many women marry men younger than themselves," I replied, willing to tease the lady, though I could have laughed aloud at the bare idea of marriage for the Boy. "Still," I went on more consolingly, "I hardly think it will come to anything serious between them."
"Ah, if you say that, you little know Gaeta," protested Gaeta's friend. "She is infatuated—infatuated with this youth of seventeen or eighteen, whom she insists, to justify her foolishness, is a year older than he can possibly be. Something must be done, and soon, or she is capable of proposing to him, if he pretend to hang back."
"Something will be done, my dear; do not be unnecessarily excited," said the Baron. "I fear we have not the full sympathy of Lord Lane."
"If you mean, will I do anything to keep the two apart, I confess you haven't," I answered. "The Contessa di Ravello is her own mistress, and I should say if she wanted the moon, it would be bad for anyone who tried to keep her from getting it."
"We shall see," murmured the Baron, as the Boy had murmured a few days ago; and behind this hint also I felt that there lurked some definite plan.
I had been to Aix-les-Bains years before, but it had not then occurred to me to visit Annecy, so near by. It was the Boy who had suggested coming, and we had planned excursions up the lake, looking out on our guide-book maps various spots of historic or picturesque interest which we should see en route, especially Menthon, the birthplace of St. Bernard. Now, here we were at Annecy, and in all the world there could not be a town more charming. By the placid blue lake—whose water, I am convinced, would still be the colour of melted turquoises if you corked it up in a bottle—you could wander along shadowed paths, strewn with the gold coin of sunshine, through a park of dells as bosky-green as the fair forest of Arden. In the quaint, old-fashioned streets of the town you were tempted to pause at every other step for one more snap-shot. You longed to linger on the bridge and call up a passing panorama of historic pageants. All these things the Boy and I would have done, and enjoyed peacefully, had we been alone, but Gaeta elected to find Annecy "dull." There was nothing to do but take walks, or sit by the lake, or drive for lunch to the Beau Rivage, or go out for an afternoon's trip in one of the little steamers. Beautiful? Oh, yes; but quiet places made one want to scream or stand on one's head when one had been in them a day or two. It would be much more amusing at Aix. There were the Casinos, and the fetes de nuit, with lots of coloured lanterns in the gardens, and fireworks, and music; and then, the baccarat! That was amusing, if you liked, for half an hour, and when you were bored there was always something else. She must really get to Aix, and see that the Villa Santa Lucia was in order. We would promise—promise—promise to follow at once? We would find our rooms at her villa ready, with flowers in them for a welcome, and we must not be too long on the way.
Gaeta left in the evening, the Boy and I seeing her off at the train; and twelve hours later we started for Chatelard, Joseph taking us away from the highroads—which would have been perfect for Molly's Mercedes—along certain romantic by-paths which he knew from former journeys. Conversation no longer made itself between us; we had to make it, and in the manufacturing process I mentioned my "friends who were motoring."
"They may turn up before long now," I said, "judging from the plans they wrote of in a letter I had from them at Aosta. It's just possible that they will pass through Aix. You would like them."
"I have run away from my own friends, and—gone rather far to do it," said the Boy. "Yet I seem destined to meet other people's. It was with very different intentions that I set out on this journey of mine."
"'Journeys end in lovers' meetings,'" I quoted carelessly. "Perhaps yours will end so."
"I thought I had done with lovers," said the Boy, with one of his odd smiles.
"You're not old enough to begin with them yet."
"I was thinking of—my sister. Her experience was a lesson in love I'm not likely to forget soon. Yet sometimes I—I'm not sure I learned the lesson in the right way. But we won't talk of that. Tell me about your friends. I'm becoming inured to social duties now."
"You don't seem to find them too onerous. As for my friends—they're an old chum of mine, Jack Winston, and his bride of a few months, the most exquisite specimen of an American girl I ever met. Perhaps you may have heard of her. She's the daughter of Chauncey Randolph, one of your millionaires. Look out! Was that a stone you stumbled over?"
"Yes. I gave my ankle a twist. It's all right now. I daresay my sister knows your friend."
"I must ask Molly Winston, when I write, or see her. But you've never told me your sister's name, except that she's called 'Princess.' If I say Miss Laurence——"
"There are so many Laurences. Did you—ever mention in your letters to—your friends that you were—travelling with anyone?"
"I haven't written to them since I knew your name, but before that, I told them there was a boy whom I had met by accident and chummed up with, just before Aosta. I think I rather spread myself on a description of our meeting."
"You didn't do that! How horrid of you!"
"Oh, I put it right afterwards, I assure you, in another letter. I told them that in spite of the bad beginning, we'd become no end of pals. That we travelled together, stopped at the same hotels, and—what's the matter?"
"Nothing. My ankle does hurt a little, after all. Shall you go on in your friends' motor car if you meet them?" He looked up at me very earnestly as he spoke.
"At one time I thought of doing so, if we ran across each other. But now that I've got you——"
"Who knows how long we may have each other? Either one of us may change his plans—suddenly. You mustn't count on me, Lord Lane."
"Look here," I said crossly, "do speak out. Don't hint things. Do you mean me to understand that you wish to stop at Aix, indefinitely, and play out your little comedy of flirtation to its close?"
"I don't know what I intend to do; now, less than ever," answered the Boy in a very low voice, the shadow of his long lashes on his cheeks.
I was too much hurt to question him further, and we pursued our way in silence, along the lake side, and then up the billowy lower slopes of the Semnoz. We had showers of rain in the sunshine; and the long, thin spears of crystal glittered like spun glass, until dim clouds spread over the bright patches of blue, and the world grew mistily grey-green.
We had planned long ago, before the spell of the Contessa fell upon us, to make the journey we were taking now, by way of the Semnoz, the so-called Rigi of this Alpine Savoy, which is neither wholly French nor wholly Italian. But we had abandoned the idea since, in a fine frenzy to keep our promise of rejoining her with all speed lest she perish alone in the icy disapproval of her friends. When the mists closed round us, we ceased to regret the decision, if we had regretted it; for instead of seeing Savoy spread out beneath us, with its snow mountains and fertile valleys, lit with azure lakes—as many as the Graces—we should have been wrapped in cloud blankets.