After a walk of thirty-two kilometres, we came to Chatelard, and, having known little or nothing of the town, we were surprised to find that most other people knew of it as a great centre for excursions. It was almost as unbelievable as that the places where we lived could possibly go on existing in exactly the same way during our absence.
"There are actually three hotels, all said to be good," I remarked, quoting from my guide-book. "To which shall we go?"
The Boy hesitated. "Choose which you like, for yourself," he replied with a slight appearance of embarrassment. "As for me, I will make up my mind—later."
I could take this in but one way: as a snub. Evidently he had selected this fashion of intimating to me the change that Gaeta's intrusion had worked in our relations. I bit back a sharp word or two which I might have regretted by-and-bye, and answered not at all. In consequence of this little passage, however, the Boy went to one hotel, and I to another, where I put Joseph up also.
A sense of loneliness was upon me, therefore my conscience stirred uneasily, and I reproached myself in that of late I had neglected the affairs of my muleteer. At one time he and I had conversed at length on such subjects as mules, women, perdition, and the like; but for many days now our intercourse had consisted mostly of a "Good morning, Joseph!" "Good morning, Monsieur!"
To-night I sent for him, and enquired whether he had anything to wish for.
"Ah, Monsieur, there is but one thing for which I ask at present," he said.
"Anything I can manage, Joseph?"
"I fear not, Monsieur. It is the assurance that the poor young soul I am trying to lead out of darkness may reach the light before we have to part."
"The same, Monsieur."
"You think her conversion within sight?"
"Just round the corner, if I may so express it."
"Yet I hear that she tells her employer she is devoting all her energies towards saving you from eternal fire. It was her excuse for letting the bag drop off Souris' back without noticing it, and for allowing Fanny's saddle to chafe."
"Ah, Monsieur, women are ready with excuses. Do you think I would permit any preoccupation of mine to interfere with the well-being of Finois?"
"Even saving a pretty woman's soul? No, Joseph, to do you justice, I don't. But I warn you, you may not have much more time before you to finish your good work. Innocentina's employer and I may part company before long." Though I smiled, I spoke heavily.
Joseph's melancholy dark face flushed, and the light died out of his eyes. "Thank you, Monsieur, I will do my best to be quick," said he, as if it had been a question of saddling Finois, instead of rescuing a young lady from the clutches of the Scarlet Woman. Whatever progress he had really been making with Innocentina's soul, it was clear that she had been getting in some deadly work upon his honest heart.
The Great Paolo
"Condescension is an excellent thing; but it is strange how one-sided the pleasure of it is."—R.L. STEVENSON.
After I went to bed that night, I thought long and bitterly of the Little Pal's defection. Mentally I addressed him as a young gazelle who had gladdened me with his soft dark eye, only to withdraw the light of that orb when it was most needed. As he apparently wished me to understand that, now he was on with Gaeta, he would fain be off with me, I would take him not only at his word, but before it. I would make an excuse to avoid stopping at the Contessa's villa, but would let him revel there alone in his glory; if one did not count the Di Nivolis.
Next morning we met by appointment at eight o'clock, and tried to behave as if nothing had happened; but I realised that I would have been a dead failure as an actor. I was grumpy and glum, and the coaxing, child-like ways which the Boy used for my beguiling were in vain. I did not say anything about my change of plans for Aix, but I brooded darkly upon them throughout the day, my mood eating away all pleasure in the charming scenery through which we passed, as a black worm eats into the heart of a cherry.
We had about twenty-nine kilometres to go, and by the time that the shadows were growing long and blue, we were approaching Aix-les-Bains. Nature had gone back to the simple apparel of her youth, here. She was idyllic and charming, but we were not to ask of her any more sensational splendours, by way of costume, for she had not brought them with her in her dress-basket. There were near green hills, and far blue mountains, and certain rocky eminences in the middle distance, but nothing of grandeur. Poplars marched along with us on either side, primly on guard, and puritanical, though all the while their myriad little fingers seemed to twinkle over the keyboard of an invisible piano, playing a rapid waltz.
Then we came at last into Aix-les-Bains, where I had spent a merry month during a "long," in Oxford days. I had not been back since.
Already the height of the season was over, for it was September now, but the gay little watering-place seemed crowded still, and in our knickerbockers, with our pack-mule and donkeys, and their attendants, we must have added a fantastic note to the dance-music which the very breezes play among tree-branches at light-hearted Aix.
"Pretty, isn't it?" I remarked indifferently, as we passed through some of the most fashionable streets.
"Yes, very pretty," said the Boy. "But what is there that one misses? There's something—I'm not sure what. Is it that the place looks huddled together? You can't see its face, for its features. There are people like that. You are introduced to them; you think them charming; yet when you've been away for a little while you couldn't for your life recall the shape of their nose, or mouth, or eyes. I feel it is going to be so with Aix, for me."
The villa which the Contessa had taken for a few weeks before her annual flitting for Monte Carlo, was on the way to Marlioz, and we had been told exactly how to find it. Still silent as to my ultimate intentions, I tramped along with the Boy beside me, Joseph and Innocentina bringing up the rear. We would know the villa from the description we had been given, and having passed out of the town, we presently saw it; a little dun-coloured house, standing up slender and graceful among trees, like a charming grey rabbit on the watch by its hidden warren in the woods.
"I'm tired, aren't you?" asked the Boy. "I shall be glad to rest."
Now was my time. "I shan't be able to rest quite yet," said I, with a careless air. "I shall see you in, say 'How-de-do' to the Contessa, and then I must be off to the hotel where I used to stop. I remember it as delightful."
"Why," exclaimed the Boy blankly, "but I thought—I thought we were going to stay with the Contessa!"
"You are, but I'm not," I explained calmly. "My friends the Winstons may very likely turn up at the same hotel" (this was true on the principle that anything, no matter how unexpected, may happen); "and if they should, I'd want to be on the spot to give them a welcome. I wouldn't miss them for the world."
"The Contessa will be disappointed," said the Boy slowly.
"Oh no, I don't think so; and if she is, a little, you will easily console her."
"If I had dreamed that you wouldn't——" The Boy began his sentence hastily, then cut it as quickly short.
I opened the gate. We passed in together, Joseph remaining outside according to my directions, keeping Fanny-anny as well as Finois, while Innocentina followed the Boy with the pack-donkey.
A turn in the path brought us suddenly upon a lawn, surrounded with shrubbery which at first had hidden it from our view. There, under a huge crimson umbrella, rising flowerlike by its long slender stem from the smooth-shaven grass, sat four persons in basket chairs, round a small tea table. Gaeta, in green as pale as Undine's draperies, sprang up with a glad little cry to greet us. The Baron and Baronessa smiled bleak "society smiles," and a handsome, fair young man frankly glared.
Evidently this was the great Paolo, master of the air and ships that sail therein; and as evidently he had heard of us.
Now I knew what the Baron had meant when he said to his wife: "Something shall happen, my dear." He had telegraphed a danger-signal to Paolo, and Paolo had lost not a moment in responding. This looked as if Paolo meant business in deadly earnest, where the Contessa was concerned; for how many dinners and medals must he not have missed in Paris, how many important persons in the air-world must he not have offended, by breaking his engagements in the hope of making one here?
He was fair, with a Latin fairness, this famous young man. There was nothing Saxon or Anglo-Saxon about him. No one could possibly bestow him—in a guess—upon any other country than his native Italy. He was thirty-one or two perhaps, long-limbed and wolfishly spare, like his elder brother, whom he resembled thus only. He had an eagle nose, prominent red lips, sulky and sensuous, a fine though narrow forehead under brown hair cut en brosse, a shade darker than the small, waxed moustache and pointed beard. His brows turned up slightly at the outer corners, and his heavy-lidded, tobacco-coloured eyes were bold, insolent, and passionate at the same time.
This was the man who wished to marry butterfly Gaeta, and who had come on the wings of the wind, in an airship "shod with fire," or in the train de luxe, to defend his rights against marauders.
His look, travelling from me to the Boy, and from the Boy to Innocentina and meek grey Souris, was so eloquent of contempt passing words, that I should have wanted to knock the sprawling flannelled figure out of the basket chair, if I had not wanted still more to yell with laughter.
He, the Boy and I were like dogs from rival kennels eyeing each other over, and thinking poorly of the other's points. Paolo di Nivoli was doubtless saying to himself what a splendid fellow he was, and how well dressed and famous; also how absurd it really would be to fear one of us dusty, knickerbockered, thick-booted, panama-hatted louts, in the tournament of love. The donkey, too, with its pack, and Innocentina with her toadstool hat, must have added for the aeronaut the last touch of shame to our environment.
As for us,—if I may judge the Boy by myself,—we were totting up against the Italian his stiff crest of hair, for all the world like a toothbrush, rampant, gules; the smear of wax on the spikes of his unnecessarily fierce moustache; the ridiculous pinpoints of his narrow brown shoes; the flaunting newness of his white flannels: the detestable little tucks in his shirt; his pink necktie.
In fact, each was despising the other for that on which the other prided himself.
All this passed in a glance, but the frigid atmosphere grew no warmer for the introduction hastily effected by Gaeta. To be sure, the Boy bowed, I bowed, and Paolo bowed the lowest of the trio, so that we saw the parting in his hair; but three honest snorts of defiance would have been no more unfriendly than our courtesies.
Not a doubt that Gaeta felt the electricity in the air, with the instinct of a woman; but with the instinct of a born flirt, she thrilled with it. Her colour rose; her warm eyes sparkled. She was perfectly happy; for—from her point of view—were there not here three male beings all secretly ready to fly at one another's throat for love of her; and what can a spoiled beauty want more?
She covered the little awkwardness with charming tact, for all her childishness; and then the excuses I made for my defection caused a diversion. She was so sorry; it was really too bad. I was going to desert her for other friends. Were not we friends, nice new friends, so much more interesting than old friends, whom you knew inside-out, like your frocks or your gloves? But surely, I would come often, very often to the villa—always for dejeuner and diner, till the other friends arrived, was it not? And I would not try to take Signor Boy (this was the name she had built on mine for him) away from her and the dear Baronessa?
I reassured her on this last point, promised everything she asked, and then got away as quickly as I could, lest I should disgrace myself by letting escape the wild laughter which I caged with difficulty. It was arranged that we should all meet that evening, after dinner, at the Villa des Fleurs, for one of those fetes de nuit which Gaeta loved; and then I turned my back upon the group under the red umbrella, without a glance for the Boy.
I tramped into the town once more, with Joseph close behind, leading his own Finois and Innocentina's Fanny, and found my way to the hotel, in its large shady garden, where coloured lamps were already beginning to glow in the twilight. Soon I had all the resources of civilisation at my command: a white-and-gold panelled suite, with a bath as big as a boudoir, and hot water enough to make of me a better man (I hoped) than Paolo di Nivoli.
Later I dined on the wide balcony, with flower-fragrance blowing towards me from the mysterious blue dusk of the garden. I ought, I said to myself, to be well-contented, for the dinner was excellent, and the surroundings a picture in aquarelles. Still, I had a vague sense of something very wrong, such as a well brought up motor car must feel when it has a screw loose, and can't explain to the chauffeur. What was it? The Boy's absence? Nonsense; he didn't want me, rather the contrary. Why should I want him? A few weeks ago I had not known that he existed. I drank a pint of dry champagne, iced almost to freezing point; but instead of hardening my heart against the ex-Brat, to my annoyance the sparkling liquid gradually but surely produced the opposite effect.
The fragrance of the flowers, the soft wind among the chestnut trees in the garden, the beauty of the night, all reproached me for my conduct to the young creature I had abandoned. What use was it to remind myself that I had merely taken a leaf out of his book, that I had even played into his hands, as he seemed to desire? The answer would come that he was a boy, and I a man. No matter what he had done, I ought not to have left him to flirt with Gaeta under the jealous eyes of the Italian, who was "a whirlwind, and caught a woman off her feet."
It was too late now to think of this, for I had refused Gaeta's invitation to visit at her house, and having done so I could not ask for another, even if I would. Probably the Boy would know well enough how far to go, and to protect himself from consequences when he had reached the limit.
"'Do I indeed lack courage?' inquired Mr. Archer of himself, 'Courage, . . . that does not fail a weasel or a rat— that is a brutish faculty?'"—R.L. STEVENSON.
I drank my black coffee and smoked a cigarette. Then, a glance at my watch told me that it was time to keep the appointment at the Villa des Fleurs, five minutes' walk from the hotel. I expected the Contessa's party to be late, but somewhat to my surprise they had already arrived, and a quick glance showed me that, outwardly at least, the relations of all were still amicable.
"Signor Boy did not wish to come," said the Contessa to me, "but I made him. He says that he does not like crowds. Look at him now; he has wandered far from us already, probably to find some dark corner where he can forget that there are too many people. But then, it was sweet of him to come at all, since it was only to please me."
It was true. The Boy had slipped away from the seats we had taken near the music. He had gone to avoid me, perhaps, I said to myself bitterly. I need not have spoiled my dinner with anxiety for his welfare; he seemed to be taking very good care of himself.
"I was horribly worried at dinner," whispered Gaeta to me, the light of the fireworks playing rosily over her face. "Those two—you know of whom I speak—weren't a bit nice to each other. It was Paolo who began it, of course, saying little, hateful things that sounded smooth, but had a second meaning; and Signor Boy is not stupid. He did not miss the bad intention, oh, not he, and he said other little things back again, much sharper and wittier than Paolo, who was furious, and gnawed his lip. It was most exciting."
"Did you try to pour oil on the troubled waters?" I asked.
"I was very pleasant to them both, if that is what you mean, first to one and then to the other. After dinner, I gave Signor Boy a rose, and Paolo a gardenia."
"How charming of you," I commented drily. "If that didn't smooth matters, what could?"
The aeronaut was sitting on Gaeta's left, I on her right, with the Baronessa next me on the other side, and both were straining every nerve to hear our confidences, though pretending to be lost in admiration of the feu d'artifice.
When the Contessa laughed softly, her little dark head not far from my ear, the Italian sprang up, and walked away, unable to endure five minutes of Gaeta's neglect. She and I continued our conversation, though our eyes wandered, mine in search of the Boy, hers I fancy in quest of the same object.
Soon I caught sight of the slim, youthful figure, in its rather fantastic evening dress, the becoming dinner-jacket, the Eton collar, the loosely tied bow at the throat, and the full, black knickerbocker trousers, like those worn in the days of Henri Quatre. As I watched it moving through the crowd, and finally subsiding in a seat under an isolated tree, I saw the boyish form joined by a tall and manly one. Paolo di Nivoli had followed his young rival, and presently came to a stand close to the Boy's chair. He folded his arms, and looked down into the eyes which were upturned in answer to some word.
We could not see the expression of the two faces. We saw only that the man and the boy were talking, spasmodically at first, then continuously.
"I do hope they're not quarrelling," said Gaeta, in the seventh heaven of delight.
"Of course not," I replied, annoyed at her frivolity. "They are too sensible."
"Let us make some excuse, and go over to them," she pleaded. "I am tired of sitting still."
There was nothing for it but to obey her whim. I took her across the grassy space which divided us from the two under the tree, and she began to chatter about the fireworks. What did Signor Boy think of them? Was not Aix a charming place?
But abruptly, in the midst of her babble, Paolo di Nivoli swept her away from the Boy and me, in his best "whirlwind" manner, which doubtless thrilled her with mingled terror and delight.
"Nice night, isn't it?" I remarked brilliantly.
"Yes," said the Boy.
"Did the Contessa give you a good dinner?"
"No—yes—that is, I didn't notice."
"Perhaps that was natural."
The Boy did not answer, but I heard him swallow hard. He was on his feet now, having risen at Gaeta's coming, and he stood kicking the grass with the point of his small patent-leather toe. Then, suddenly, he looked up straight into my face, with big dilated eyes.
"What's the matter?" I asked, when still he did not speak.
"Oh, Man, I'm in the most awful scrape."
"I should be thankful to tell you about it, and get your advice, if—you were like you used to be."
"It's you who have changed, not I."
"No, it's you."
"Don't let's dispute about it. Tell me what's the trouble. Has that bounder been cheeking you?"
"Worse than that. He said things that made me angry, and—then I checked him."
"Just now—under this tree?"
"It began at dinner, a little. But the particular thing I'm speaking of happened here. I couldn't stand it, you know."
"What did he say?"
"He asked me how old I was, at first—in such a tone! I answered that I was old enough to know my way about, I hoped. He said he should have thought not, as I travelled with my nurse. Then he wanted to know what was in Souris' pack, whether I carried condensed milk for my nursing-bottle. It was all I could do to keep from boxing his ears, before everyone, but I kept still, and laughed a little; presently I answered in a drawling sort of way, saying I needn't tell him that what Souris carried was no affair of his, because when I came to think of it, after all it was quite natural that a great donkey should be interested in a small one."
"By Jove, you little fire-eater!"
"Well, I had to show him that I was an American, anyhow."
"I suppose he was annoyed."
"He was very much annoyed. Man, he's challenged me to fight a duel. Only think of it, a real duel! He said I'd have to fight, or he'd thrash me for a coward. I—it's a horrid scrape, but I don't see how I'm going to get out of it with—with honour. Will you—if I do have to—but look here, I won't have him running me through with a sword, or anything of that sort. I'm afraid I couldn't face that. I wouldn't mind a revolver quite as much."
"The big bully!" I exclaimed. "But of course it's all rot. There can be no question of your fighting him."
"I don't know. I'd rather do that—if we could have pistols—than have him think an American—could be a coward. I'm not a coward, I hope, only—only I never thought of anything like this. He's going to send a friend of his to call on you, as a friend of mine, he said. I suppose that means a what-you-may-call-'em—a 'second,' doesn't it? If I must fight with him, Man, you will be my second, won't you, and—and act for me, if that's the right word?"
Gazing up earnestly, his eyes very big, his face pale, he looked no more than fourteen, and the idea of a duel to the death between this child and Gaeta's whirlwind would have been comic in the extreme, had I not been enraged with the whirlwind.
"I'll be your friend, and get you out of the scrape," I said. "But it will mean that you must give up the Contessa."
"Give up the Contessa!" echoed the Boy. "What do I want with the Contessa! I'm sick of the sight of her."
"Since the first day we met. I don't think she's even pretty. What you can see in her, I don't know—the silly little giggling thing! There, it's out at last."
"What I see in her?" I repeated. "I like that."
"I always supposed you did. But I can't stand her."
"Well, of all the—— Look here, why have you been hanging after her, if you—"
"I didn't. I just wasn't going to let you make a fool of yourself over her, and then regret it afterwards. So I—I did my best to take her attention away from you, and I succeeded fairly well. It—vexed me to see you falling in love with her. She wasn't worth it."
"There was never the remotest chance of my doing so."
"You said there was."
"I was chaffing, just to hear myself talk. I should have thought you would know that."
"How could I know? You were always saying how pretty and dainty she was, and quoting poetry about her, while all the time I could read her shallow little mind, and see how different she was from what you imagined."
"I think I have a fairly clear idea of her limitations."
"But you told me that you'd planned to go down to Monte Carlo expressly to see the Contessa; and you said that it would perhaps be a wise thing for you to try and fall in love with her."
"If a man has to try and fall in love with a woman, he's pretty safe. You and I seem to have been playing at cross purposes, youngster. You thought I was in danger of falling in love, and I thought you were already in."
"You couldn't have believed it, really."
"I did, and supposed you wanted me out of the way."
"I was thinking the same thing about you. You did seem jealous and sulky."
"I was both; but it was because our friendship had been interfered with, Little Pal."
"Oh, Man, do you really mean that?"
"Every word of it. I wouldn't give up a talk with you for a kiss from the Contessa, of which, by the way, I'm very unlikely to have the chance. But you——"
"I've been miserable for the last few days. I—I missed you, Man."
"And I you, Boy."
"What an awful pity it is I've got to stand up and be shot, just as we're good friends again, and everything's all right!"
"You've got to do nothing of the sort. Le cher Paolo will, if he is really in earnest and not bluffing, send his friend to me, and matters will be settled, never fear."
"I don't fear. At least, I—hope I don't—much. Only I wasn't brought up to expect challenges to duels. They're not—in my line. But I won't apologise, whatever happens. No, I won't, I won't, I won't. I dare say it doesn't hurt much, being shot; and I suppose he wouldn't be so—so impolite as to shoot me in the face, would he?"
"He is not going to shoot you anywhere," said I.
"I am glad I told you. I was feeling—rather queer. What am I to do? Am I to go back to the villa as if nothing had happened, or—what?"
"'What' might mean coming to my hotel, but you seemed to find my society a bore."
"That's unkind. It was your own fault that I went to a different hotel at Chatelard."
"How do you make that out?"
"I can't tell you. I don't suppose you'll ever know. But if you should guess, by-and-bye, remembering something you once said, you might understand."
"Something I once said——"
"Never mind. Please don't talk of it. I'd rather be shot at. But I want you to believe that my reason wasn't the one you thought. Now, tell me what you're going to do about Signor di Nivoli. Have you made a plan?"
"One has popped into my head," I replied. "It mayn't answer, but will you give me carte blanche to try? If it doesn't work, I'll get you out of the mess in another way. But this would give us a chance of making Paolo eat humble pie."
"Do try it, then. I'd risk a lot for that."
"As for to-night, on the whole I think the best thing will be for you to go back to the villa. Of course we mustn't let the Contessa suspect——"
"Little cat! I wouldn't give her the satisfaction."
"Upon my word, you're not very gallant."
"I don't care. I'm sick of the Contessa. A plague upon her, and all her houses. Yet, I wish her nothing worse than that she should marry Paolo. Ugh! A man with his hair en brosse!"
"Probably he is saying, 'Ugh! a boy with curls on his collar.'"
"May one of his old balloons fly away with him, before he shoots me. Anyhow, he shall find that curls don't make a coward. Only—there's just one thing before you treat with him. I won't—I can't—be jabbed at with anything sharp."
"You shan't," said I.
With this, the Contessa beckoned from a distance, with news that she was going home. We followed, the Boy and I, allowing her to walk far ahead, with her triumphant aeronaut, the Baron and Baronessa, radiant with satisfaction in the success of their plot, arm in arm between the two couples.
Having seen my little Daniel to the gate of the Lions' Den, I shook hands cordially with everybody, Paolo last of all. He placed his fingers with haughty reluctance in my ostentatiously proffered palm, but I held the four chilly, fish-like things (chilly only for me) long enough to mutter, sotto voce: "I want a word with you on a matter of importance. I'll walk up and down the road for twenty minutes."
His impulse was to refuse, I could see by the sharp upward toss of his chin. But a certain quality in my look, clearly visible to him in the light of the gate lamp (I was at some pains to produce the effect), warned him that if his bloodthirsty plans were not to be nipped in the red bud, he must bend his will to mine in this one instance.
He answered with a glance, and I knew that I should not be kept long on my beat.
An American Custom
"Oh, have it your own way; I am too old a hand to argue with young gentlemen, . . . I have too much experience, thank you."—R.L. STEVENSON.
Five minutes, ten minutes passed, after the farewells. Then, as I sauntered by on the other side of the way, I heard the sound of a foot on gravel, and Paolo di Nivoli appeared under the gate light. There he paused, expecting me to cross to him, but I allotted him the part of Mahomet and selected for myself that of the Mountain. Shrugging his square shoulders, he came striding over the road to me; and I had scored one small victory. I hoped that I might take it for an omen.
"I do not understand the nature of this appointment, Monsieur," began the Italian. "I intended to send my friend Captain de Sales to you to——"
"Ah, yes, that is the Continental way in these little affairs," I ventured to interrupt him coolly. "On our side of the Channel we are rather ignorant on such matters, I fear. But my young friend Mr. Laurence is an American."
"Do you mean that he will refuse to fight, after insulting me?" asked Paolo, bristling.
"Not at all. He is very young, and this will be his first duel. He may have misunderstood your intentions. But I gathered from him that you had said he would have to fight; that you then requested him to name a friend to whom you could send a friend of yours——"
"This is the fact. There was no misunderstanding. He named you."
"Yes; but as I said, he is an American."
"What of that, since he will fight?"
"As a duellist yourself, no doubt a successful one, you must be aware that such matters are conducted differently in the States."
"I know nothing of that. I know only our own ways, which are good enough for me."
"But my friend, being the challenged party, has the right, I believe, to choose the manner of duel."
"That will be arranged between you and my friend, according to the choice of Mr. Laurence."
"I must ask you to go slowly, just at this point. In the States, it is against the duelling code to have the details arranged by the friends of the principals. It is the principals themselves who do all that, and for the best of reasons. But as Mr. Laurence is a boy, and you are a man, it is but right that I should speak with you for him. You needn't send Captain de Sales to me. We are man to man, and in ten minutes we can have everything settled with fairness to both parties."
"This is a new idea, Monsieur, and I confess it does not commend itself to me," said Paolo.
"I suppose, however, you are anxious to fight?"
"Sacre bleu, but yes. The little jackanapes called me a donkey, and he had the impudence to allude to my invention as a 'balloon,' adding that there was little to choose between it and my head. Ciel! Do I wish to fight?"
"Then, as you must grant him the privileges of the challenged party, I fear there is only one way of carrying this thing through. He is patriotic to a fault, and he will fight in the American fashion or not at all. I must say this is to the credit of his courage, as there is to me, an Englishman, something appalling about the method. I trust that I'm not a coward, yet it would take all my nerve to face such an ordeal. No doubt, however, with the fiery Latin races it is different."
"I shall be glad of your explanation, Monsieur. What is this method of which you speak?"
"There are several small variations; there are the bits of paper; there are the matches; there are the beans of different size."
"I am more in the dark than ever."
"My friend proposes the bits of paper. Two are taken, exactly resembling each other, except in length. Both are placed inside a book, with an end, say an inch long, sticking out. You and Mr. Laurence draw simultaneously, that there can be no question of cheating. The one who draws the long bit lives—the other stands up to be shot, without defending himself."
"Mon Dieu, how horrible! I would never submit to such a barbarous test. That is not a duel, it is murder."
I shrugged my shoulders as gracefully, I flatter myself, as Paolo himself could have done it. But for the moment Paolo was in no shoulder-shrugging mood. His very crest—it seemed to me—was drooping.
"Nevertheless," said I, "that is the American idea of a duel, as practised in the best society. My friend is a member of the Four Hundred, and should it become known that he had been killed in an old-fashioned, butcherly duel, his memory would be disgraced."
"But what about my memory?" demanded Paolo, with open palms. "Monsieur does not appear to think of that."
"It was not on my mind. I am acting for my friend. You have challenged a boy, a mere child, to fight you to the death. He very pluckily accepts your challenge. There are those who would think that you had done a brutal, even a cowardly thing, in putting a youth of seventeen or eighteen into such a position. Then, surely your most lenient friends would say that the least you could do would be to give the child his right of choice in weapons. Very well; he chooses two bits of paper of different lengths."
Paolo shuddered. "I will not consent," he said, swallowing hard, after a moment's reflection.
"Very well. You have had my friend's ultimatum. Am I to tell him that this is yours?"
"It is not fair!" he exclaimed. "Monsieur Laurence has his friend to act for him. As yet, I have no one."
"He is eighteen at most. You are—perhaps thirty. Still, if you insist, I will see Captain de Sales, tell him my principal's idea, and perhaps he will be more fortunate in inducing you to consent——"
"No, no," cried the Italian quickly. "I would not have him or anyone know of this monstrous proposal. I should never hear the end of it, and there would be a thousand versions of the story."
I was not surprised at this decision on his part. Indeed, I had expected it with confidence.
"You will not reconsider?" I asked nonchalantly.
"Jamais de la vie!"
"Then the duel is off."
I smiled; but he did not see the smile. I was careful that he should not.
"I consider that you and your principal have taken an unfair advantage."
"That is between you and me. If you care to raise the question——"
"I have no quarrel with you."
"Then you and Mr. Laurence must treat the misunderstanding of this evening as if it had not been. This will not be difficult, as he will go with me on an excursion to-morrow, now that his—er—engagement with you is off; and the day after, he and I think of leaving Aix altogether, by way of Mont Revard."
This plan arranged itself spontaneously; but as the Boy had ungallantly called Gaeta "a little cat," and I was slightly blase of her dimples, I thought that I might count upon its being carried out.
"What—he will go away?" exclaimed Paolo, all at once a different man. "He will leave Aix altogether, you say?"
"Yes. You see, we are on our way south. Mr. Laurence merely wanted a glance at Aix en route, and the Contessa was kind enough to invite him to her house. It was really nice of her, as he is such a boy."
"You think so? Yes—perhaps. Well, I consent on these terms to forget. You may tell your principal what I have said."
"I will," I returned. "He will be guided by me, and forget also; though I assure you, like most of his countrymen, he is a fire-eater—a fire-eater."
This time it was Paolo who volunteered to shake hands.
There is No Such Girl
"She has forgotten my kisses, and I—have forgotten her name."—A.C. SWINBURNE.
I went early in the morning to the villa with the intention of culling the Boy like a wayside flower, and carrying him off to the lake. The hour was unearthly for a morning call, and the windows were still asleep, but I was spared the necessity of raising the echoes with an untimely peal of the bell. Under the red umbrella lounged the Boy, reading with the appearance, at least, of nonchalance. For all he could tell, I might have failed in my mission, and have come to announce the hour fixed for deadly combat; but he was not even pale. Indeed, I had never seen him rosier, or brighter-eyed.
I sat down on the rustic seat beside him, and with a glance at the veiled windows of the villa, I remarked in a low voice, "It's all right."
"That goes without saying."
"Because you promised."
"Thanks for the compliment. Have you had your cafe au lait?"
"No. I got up early, and thought of walking round to your hotel to see you, but decided I wouldn't."
"I half expected you."
"I didn't want to seem too—importunate. I hoped you'd come here."
"Like a promising child, I've justified your hopes. Let's walk down to the Grand Port, to a garden restaurant I remember; and over our coffee, I'll tell you the story of my diplomatic coup. Meanwhile, we'll discuss Shakespeare and the musical glasses."
"Anything but the Contessa," said the Boy, springing up, and cramming his panama over his curls. "I shall breathe more freely on the other side of the gate, and I shan't consider myself out of the scrape until I'm out of her house for good."
In the street he drew fuller breaths, and with each yard of distance that we put between ourselves and the villa his eyes grew brighter and his step more airy.
I unfolded my plan for the morning, which was to take a trip up the lake to the Abbey of Hautecombe, and return in time for dejeuner, since, as a guest of the Contessa, the Boy could scarcely absent himself all day without conspicuous rudeness. "You'll have to be tied to the lady's apron strings, if she wants you knotted there, for the afternoon," said I. "But I'm going to have a telegram from my friends to meet them on the top of Mont Revard to-morrow, so if you want an excuse——"
"What, your friends the Winstons?" he broke in, with one of the sudden flaming blushes that made him seem so young.
"Yes, why not?"
"They are coming to join you?"
"I told you they might turn up at any moment, and——"
"And now the moment has arrived. Then it has also arrived for us to say good-bye."
"Do you mean that?"
"Oh, don't think me ungrateful—or ungracious. I'm neither. But, in any case, we must sooner or later have reached the parting of the ways. You are bound to Monte Carlo. I have—the vaguest plans."
"I thought you said that your sister might be going there with friends."
"But my sister and I are—very different persons."
"Surely you would wish to meet her there?"
"It's rather undecided at present, anyhow," returned the Boy, his eyes bent on the ground as we walked, our steps less sprightly now. "There's only one thing settled, which is, that I can't go with you up Mont Revard to meet—people."
"There isn't the slightest chance of my meeting anyone there, friend Diogenes," I began. "I was only waiting for you to give me time to explain, since you're inclined to be obtuse, the difference between sending a telegram to yourself, and——"
"Oh, I see. You aren't going to meet a soul on Mont Revard?"
"Not even an astral body—by appointment. And the plan was made for your deliverance. Rather hard lines that you should kick at it."
He looked up, laughing and merry once more. "I won't kick again. Man, you are—well, you're different from other men. Yes, from every other man I've ever met."
"Am I to take that as praise?"
He nodded, his big eyes sending blue rays into mine.
"Thanks. Best man you ever met?"
Another nod, and more colour in his cheeks.
"Good enough to be introduced to your sister?"
"Good enough—even for that."
"What if I should fall in love with her?"
The Boy straightened his shoulders, after a slight start of surprise, and seemed to pull himself together. For a moment he was silent, as we walked on under the close-growing plane trees which lined the long, straight road to the Grand Port. Then at last he said, "You wouldn't."
"How can you tell that?"
"Because—she isn't—your style."
"You don't know my 'style' of girl."
"Oh, yes, I do. Don't you remember a talk we had, the first day we were friends? We told each other a lot of things. I can see that girl; the girl who—who——"
"Jilted me," I supplied. "Don't hesitate to call a spade a spade."
"A lovely, angelic-looking creature, typically English; golden hair; skin like cream and roses."
"The type has palled upon me," said I. "I know now that Molly Winston—my friend's wife—was right. I never really loved that girl. It was her popularity and my own vanity that I was in love with."
"Are you sure?"
"As sure as that I'm starving for my breakfast. If the young lady—she's married now, and I wish her all happiness—should appear before me at the end of this street, and sob out a confession of repentance for the past, it wouldn't in the least affect my appetite. I should tell her not to mind, and hurry on to join you at the corner."
"You would have forgotten by that time that there was a Me."
"I can't think of anyone or anything at the moment which would make me forget that," said I.
"Not she, nor any other pretty doll."
"An earthquake, then?"
"Nor an earthquake: for I should probably occupy myself in trying to save your life. To tell the honest truth, Little Pal, you've become a confirmed habit with me, and I confess that the thought of finishing this tramp without you gave me a distinct shock, when you flung it at my head. If you were open to the idea of adoption, I think I should have to adopt you, you know: for, now that I've got used to seeing you about, it seems to me that, as certain advertisements say of the articles they recommend, no home would be complete without you. But there's your sister; she would object to annexation."
The Boy was busily kicking fallen leaves as he walked. "You might ask her—if you should ever see each other."
"Make her meet you at Monte Carlo, and introduce us there. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give a dinner at the Hotel de Paris—the night after we arrive. It shall be in your hands, and of course your sister's, who ought to know your pal. You must try hard to get her to come. Is it a bargain?"
"I can't answer for her."
"But I only ask you to try your hardest. Come now, when I've told you about last night, you'll say I deserve a reward."
"Yes, I'll try."
"But, by Jove, I'd forgotten that your sister is an heiress," I went on. "I've vowed not to fall in love with a girl who has a lot of money."
"I told you that you wouldn't fall in love with her."
"Is she like you?"
"A good many people think so. That's why I'm so sure she wouldn't be the sort of girl you'd care for—you, a man who admires the English rose type or—a Contessa."
"The Contessa was your affair. For me, a woman of her type could never be dangerous. Whereas, a girl like your sister——"
"Still harping on my sister!"
"I often think of her as 'The Princess.' It's a pretty name. I fancy it suits her. Once or twice, since we've been chums, you have had letters, I know. I hope you've better news of her?"
"She's cured in body and mind. It is—rather a queer coincidence, perhaps, for like you, she has found out, so she tells me—that she wasn't really in love with—the man. She was only in love with love."
"I'm heartily glad. If she's as true and brave a little soul, as glorious a pal as you are, she will one day make some fellow the happiest man alive."
The Boy did not answer. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with the indirect praise suddenly heaped upon him; perhaps he thought that I spoke too freely of the Princess his sister. I was not sure, myself, that I had not gone beyond good taste; but calling up the picture of a girl, resembling in character the Little Pal, had stirred me to sudden enthusiasm. Fancy a girl looking at one with such eyes! a girl capable of being such a companion. It would not bear thinking of. There could be no such girl.
I was glad that, at this moment, we arrived at the Grand Port, and the garden restaurant, where my regrets for the light that never was on land or sea—or in a girl's eyes—were temporarily drowned in cafe au lait.
The talk was no more of the unseen Princess, but of Paolo. At last I condescended to enter into a detailed account of the night's happenings, where the aeronaut was concerned, and the Boy threw up his chin, showing his little white teeth in a burst of laughter at my manoeuvre. "But that isn't an American duel," he objected, still rippling with mirth. "You commit suicide, you know. The man who draws the short bit of paper agrees to go quietly off and kill himself decently somewhere, before the end of a stipulated time."
"I'm aware of that, but I gambled on Paolo's ignorance of the custom," said I. "I flattered myself that I'd totted up his character like a sum on a slate, and I acted on the estimate I formed. If I had kept entirely to facts, without giving the rein to my imagination, you might now be doomed to travel at this time next year to Buda-Pesth, and there drown yourself in the largest possible vat of beer. Had Paolo been unlucky in the matter of getting the short bit of paper, a little thing like that wouldn't have bothered him much. He would simply have gone off for a long trip in his newest air-ship, and conveniently forgotten such an obscure engagement. It was the thought of standing up defenceless, to be artistically potted at by you, that turned his heart to water."
"I believe you're right, and anyway, you are very clever," said the Boy. "What does one do for a man who has saved one's life?"
"If you were only a girl, now—a Princess in a fairy story—you would bestow upon me your hand," I replied gaily. "As it is—I can't at the moment think of a punishment to fit the crime."
"Though I can't be a Princess, I might play the Prince, and give you a ring," he said, pulling at the queer seal ring he always wore.
"But it wouldn't fit the crime—I mean the finger."
"Mere mortals never argue when the fairy Prince makes them a present. Do take the ring. I should like you to have it to—remember me by."
"To remember you by? But such chums as we have got to be don't give memory much pull; they arrange to see each other often."
"Fairy Princes vanish sometimes, you know."
"If I take your ring, will you appear if I rub it?"
The Boy was smiling, but his eyes looked grave. "If when the Fairy Prince has vanished—that is, if he should—you want to see him really badly, try rubbing the ring. It might work. But you'll probably lose the ring before that—and the memory."
I answered by hooking the ring, which was far too small for the least of my fingers, into the spring-loop which held my watch on its chain.
"My watch and I are one," I said. "Only burglary or death can separate me from the ring now; and if I'm smashed next time Jack Winston lets me drive his motor car, there will probably be a romantic little paragraph in the papers—perhaps even a pathetic verse—about the ring on the dead man's watch-chain, which will give you every satisfaction."
"The boat's whistling," said the Boy. "We'd better run, if we want to see the Abbey of Hautecombe before lunch."
We did run, and caught the boat in that uncertain and exciting manner which brings into play a physical appurtenance unrecognised by science, i.e., the skin of the teeth. Under the awning which shaded the deck, we took the only two seats not occupied by an abnormally large German family,—abnormally large individually as well as collectively,—and settled ourselves for half an hour's enjoyment of a charming water-panorama.
"What a heavenly place Aix is!" exclaimed the Boy fervently. "I'm so glad I came."
"I thought yesterday that you were disappointed in the place."
"Oh, yesterday was yesterday. To-day's to-day. How glorious everything is, in the world. I do love living. And I like everybody so much. What nice, good creatures one's fellow beings are. My heart warms to them. I don't believe anybody's really horrid, through and through. I should like to pat somebody on the shoulder."
"Queer thing; I feel exactly the same way this morning," said I. "Shall we throw ourselves on one another's bosom, and kiss each other on both cheeks, German fashion, to show our good will towards all mankind? I'm sure our travelling companions would warmly sympathize with our schwaermerei."
"No-o, perhaps we'd better not risk setting them the example, for fear they should follow it."
"Then let's shake hands."
He put out his little slim brown paw, and I seized it with such heartiness that he visibly winced, but not a squeak did the pain draw from him; and the large Germans, looking on gravely, no doubt thought that, according to some queer English rite, we had registered an important vow.
Really the world was a nice place that day, though I might not have noticed it so much if the Boy and I had been still at loggerheads.
Yesterday, as we entered Aix, I had said to myself that the mountains surrounding the town had descended to depths of dumpy ugliness unworthy the name and dignity of mountains. I had formulated the idea that there should be world landscape-gardeners appointed, to work on a grand scale, and alter hills or mountains which Nature had neglected or bungled. But to-day, as we steamed down the long, narrow Lac de Bourget, sitting shoulder to shoulder, the light breeze fluttering butterfly-wings against our faces, I could not see that there was anything for the most fastidious taste to alter, anywhere.
As the lake at Annecy had been incredibly blue, this lake was incredibly green. No weekly penny paper in England, even in its fattest holiday number, would have room enough to compute the vast number of emeralds which must have been melted to give that vivid tint to the sparkling water. It was as easy to see the inhabitants of the lake having their luncheon at the bottom, on tables exquisitely decorated with coloured pebbles, as it is to look in through the plate-glass window of a restaurant. As our course changed, the mountains girdling the lake and filling in the perspective, grouped themselves in graceful attitudes, like professional beauties sitting for their photographs. There were chateaux dotted here and there on the hillside, and I no longer peopled them with myself and Helen Blantock. I realised that if one had a palace on the Lake of Como or Bourget, or any other romantic sheet of water, one could be happy as an elderly bachelor, if one's days were occasionally enlivened by visits from congenial friends, such as the Winstons and the Boy. No wonder that Lamartine was happy at Chatillon, writing his Meditations! I felt that a long residence on the shores of the Lac de Bourget would inspire me to some modest meditations of my own, and I could even have taken down a few memoranda for them, had I not feared that the Boy would laugh to see my notebook come out.
I remembered Hautecombe, with its ancient Abbey, deep cream-coloured, like old ivory or the marbles of the Vatican, glimmering among dark trees, and mirrored in the lake so clearly that, gazing long at the reflection, one felt as if standing on one's head. I pointed it out to the Boy from a distance, on its jutting promontory, with the pride of the well-informed guide, and talked of the place with a superficial appearance of erudition. But after all, when he came to pin me down with questions, my bubble-reputation burst. Not a date could I pump up from the drained depths of my recollection, and in the end I had to accept ignominiously from the Boy such crumbs as he had collected from a guide-book larder. What was it to us, I contended, that the monastery was said to have been built in 1125? What did it matter that it had originally been the home of Cistercians? Why clog one's mind with such details, since it was enough for all purposes of romance to know that the old building had weathered many wars and many centuries, and that a special clause had protected the monks when Savoie was ceded by Italy to France? The great charm of the place for me, apart from its natural beauty, lay in the thought that it was the last home of dead kings, the vanished Princes of Savoie; I did not want to know the facts of its restoration at different dates, and would indeed shut my eyes upon all such traces if I could.
Though the Abbey and its double in the lake had remained a picture in my mind, through the years since I had seen them, I was struck anew with the peaceful loveliness of the place as we approached the little landing-stage. The Kings of Savoie had chosen well in choosing to sleep their last sleep at Hautecombe.
The Boy and I slowly ascended the deeply shadowed road which led up the hill to the Abbey, but leisurely as we walked, we soon outpaced the Germans. For this we were not sorry, since it gave us the silent grey church to ourselves—and the sleeping Kings. We bestowed money for his charities upon the white-robed monk who would have shown us the tombs and the chapels, conscientiously gabbling history the while; and then, with compliments, we freed him from the duty. His hard facts would have been like dogs yapping at our heels, and, as the Boy said, we would not have been able to hear ourselves think.
We whispered as if fearing to wake the sleepers, as we wandered from one bed of marble in its dim niche, to another. Never, perhaps, did so many crowned heads lie under the same roof as at peaceful Hautecombe, sleeping longer, more soundly far, than the Princess in her enchanted Palace in the Wood. For centuries the convent bells have rung, calling the monks to prayer; and sometimes the walls have trembled with the thunder of cannon: yet the sleepers have not stirred. There they have lain, those stately, royal figures, with hands folded placidly on placid bosoms, resting well after stress and storm.
It was difficult to keep in mind that the real kings and queens had mouldered into dust under the stone where reposed their counterfeit presentments. Again and again we had to send away the impression that we were looking at the actual bodies, transformed by the slow process of centuries into marble, together with their guardian lions, their favourite hounds, and their curly lambs.
The endless slumber of these royal men and women of Savoie seemed magical, mysterious. We felt that, if we but had the secret of the talisman, we could wake them; that they would slowly rise on elbow, and gaze at us, stony-eyed, and reproachful for shattering their dreams.
The murmurous silence of the church whispered broken snatches of their life stories—not that part which we could read in history, or see graven in Latin on their tombs, but that part of which they might choose to dream. Had those knightly men in carven armour loved the marble ladies lying in stately right of possession by their sides, or had their fancy wandered to others whose dust lay now in some far, obscure corner of earth?
If my homage could have compensated in any small degree for kingly unfaith, a drop of balm would have fallen upon the marble heart of each royal lady to whom such injustice had perchance been done; for I loved them all for their noble dignity, and the sweet femininity which remained to them even under the mask of stone. Their names alone warmed the blood with the wine of romance: the Princess Yolande; the Duchess Beatrix; the Lady Melusine. Surely, with such names and such profiles, they had been worth a man's living or dying for; and if life had not been so vivid for me that day, I should have wished myself back in the far past, in heavy, uncomfortable armour, fighting their battles.
"'Where are all the dear, dead women?'" asked the Boy. "'What's become of all the gold that used to hang, and brush their shoulders?' Maybe part of the answer to Browning's question lies in those tombs."
"They were Princesses, like your sister," said I. "I've been fancying them with her eyes."
"What do you know about her eyes?" he asked quickly.
"I imagine them like yours."
"Let's get out into the sunshine again," said the Boy. "I'm afraid it's time to leave the Princesses, and go back to the Contessa."
The Revenge of the Mountain
"Contending with the fretful elements." —SHAKESPEARE.
It is the early bird which gathers the worm, if the worm has thoughtlessly got up early too; but it is also the bird which comes flying from afar off, whatever his engagements elsewhere may be; the bird which, having come, remains on the spot favoured by the worm, singing sweet songs to charm it into a mood ripe for the gathering.
Such a bird was Paolo, and such—but perhaps it would be more gallant not to carry the simile further, since even poetry could scarcely license it.
It is enough to say, in proof of the proverb, that when the Boy and I arrived at the villa in time for dejeuner, to which I had been invited over night, we found Paolo with Gaeta, under the red umbrella, unencumbered by any irrelevant Barons or Baronesses.
Gaeta was looking pale and a little frightened. Her dimples were in abeyance, as if waiting to learn whether something had happened to twinkle about, or something which would more likely extinguish them forever. But the aeronaut might have invented an air-ship to take the place of ordinary Channel traffic, so great with pride was he. He appeared to have grown several inches in height, and to have increased considerably in chest measurement, as he sprang from his chair to welcome us, as if we had been long-lost brothers.
"Congratulate me," said he. "The Contessa has just consented to be my wife."
Gaeta clutched the arm of her rustic seat with a tiny hand upon which a new ring glittered, like a new star in the firmament. Her warm dark eyes, eager, expectant, deliciously fearful, were on the Boy. If the discarded favourite of yesterday had leaped to the throat of the accepted lover of to-day (her "Whirlwind"), she would have screamed a silvery little scream and implored him for her sake to accept the inevitable calmly; she would have given him a reproachful flash of the eyes, to say, "Why didn't you take me, instead of letting him carry me away? What could I do, when you left me alone, at his mercy—I so frail, he so big and strong?" Her glance would then have telegraphed to Paolo, "You have won me and my love; you can afford to spare a defeated rival who is desperate"; and perhaps she might even have thrown me a crumb for auld flirtation's sake.
But the Boy did not, apparently, feel the least magnetic attraction towards Paolo's throat, or any other vulnerable part of the aeronaut's person. Nor did he stamp on the ground, crying upon earth to open and swallow the master of the air. I, too, kept an unmoved front; but then, being English, that might have been pardoned to my national sang-froid. There was, however, no such excuse for the mercurial young American, and flat disappointment struck out the spark in Gaeta's eye. The second act of her little drama seemed doomed to failure.
"Mille congratulations," said the Boy cordially, I basely echoing him. We shook hands with Gaeta; we shook hands with Paolo, and something was said about weddings and wedding-cake. Then the Baron and Baronessa appeared so opportunely as to give rise to the base suspicion that they had been eavesdropping. More polite things were mumbled, and we went to luncheon, Gaeta on Paolo's arm, with a disappointed droop of her pretty shoulders. We drank to the health and happiness of the newly affianced pair, a habit which seemed to be growing upon me of late, and might lead me down the fatal grade of bachelordom. The Boy and I were unable to conceal, as we ought to have done out of politeness, the fact that our appetites had sustained the shock of our lady's engagement, and I saw in her eyes that she could never wholly forgive us, no, not even if we made love to her after marriage.
"Shall you take your wedding trip in a balloon?" asked the Boy demurely; and this was the last straw. Gaeta did not make the faintest protest when, soon after, it was announced that he and I thought of leaving Aix on the morrow. I am not sure that she even heard my vague apologies concerning a telegram from friends.
We all went to the opera at one of the Casinos that night. It was "Rigoletto," and Gaeta and Paolo sat side by side, looking into each other's eyes during the love scene in the first act. But the Boy was adamant, and I did not turn a hair. He and I were much occupied in wondering at the strange infatuation of the stage hero, but especially the villain—quite a superior villain—for the heroine, who looked like an elderly papoose: therefore we had no time to be jealous of anything that went on under our noses. The party supped with me, en masse, at my hotel; and afterwards I said good-bye to Gaeta.
She did not know that I had planned my journey with a thought of seeing her at the end, and drowning my sorrows in flirtation; but the Boy knew, and had not forgotten—the little wretch. I saw his thought twinkling in his eyes, as I said debonairly that we might all meet on the Riviera. If I had not sternly removed my gaze, I should probably have burst out laughing, and precipitated a second duel in which I, and not the Boy, would have been a principal.
When I had been in Aix-les-Bains before, I had made the excursion to Mont Revard, as all the world makes it, by the funicular railway; and after half an hour in the little train, I had arrived at the top for lunch and the view, both being enjoyed in a conventional manner. Now, all was to be changed. The Boy and I did not regard ourselves as tourists, but as pilgrims.
Among other things that self-respecting pilgrims cannot do, is to ascend a mountain by means of a funicular railway; better stay at the bottom, and look up with reverence. Therefore, instead of strolling out to the little station about twelve o'clock, with the view of reaching the restaurant on the plateau in time for dejeuner, we met on the balcony of the Bristol at seven in the morning. There we fortified ourselves for a long walk, with eggs and cafe au lait, while Innocentina and Joseph grouped the animals at the foot of the steps.
The day was divinely young, and most divinely fair, when we set forth. Only the soft fall of an occasional leaf, weary of keeping up appearances on no visible means of support, told that autumn had come. The weather put me in mind of a beautiful woman of forty, who can still cheat the world into believing that she is in the full summer of her prime, and is making the most of the few good years left before the crash.
As we struck up the steep hill that leads out of Aix-les-Bains and civilisation, passing with all our little procession into the oak copses which fringe the lower slopes of Mont Revard, the Boy and I agreed that nothing became the town so well as the leaving it behind. At last little Aix unveiled her face to us, as we looked down upon it from airy altitudes. We had space to see how pretty she was, how charmingly she was dressed, and how gracefully she sat in her mountain-backed chair, with her dainty white feet in the lake, which, as Joseph said, we could now follow with our eyes dans toute son etendue. A beautiful etendue it was, the water keeping its extraordinary brilliance of colour, even in the far distance; vivid in changing blue-greens, flecked with gold, like the spread tail of a peacock burnished by the sun.
Mont Revard is chiselled on the same pattern as all the other mountains, big and little, of this part of Savoie; first, the long, steep slope decently covered with a belt of wood, oak below, and pine above; then a grey, precipitous wall, scarred and furrowed by the frost and storm of a million years or more. This block-and-socket arrangement of Nature is, generally speaking, one of the least interesting of mountain forms, and its crudity was the more noticeable as we were fresh from the soaring pinnacles and stupendous pyramids of Switzerland. But Mont Revard is the perfection of its type; and as we plodded in single file up the threadlike path wound round the mountain (Joseph and Innocentina in front, driving the animals), my respect for Revard increased with each steeply ascending step.
Aromatic-scented branches brushed our faces, and we had to part them before we could pass on. Then they flew back into their accustomed places, resenting our intrusion by shaking over us a shower of fragrant dew. The path, which was always narrow, had fallen away a little here and there, for it is no one's business to repair it now, since the making of the railway has turned pilgrims into tourists. There was just room for man or beast to walk without danger, but so sheer were the descents below us, so great the drop, that a woman might have been pardoned a few tremors. "It's a good thing you're not a girl," said I to the Little Pal, across my shoulder, holding back a particularly obstinate branch which would have liked to push us over the precipice, with its lean black arm. "You would be screaming, and I shouldn't know what to do for you."
"Not if I were an American girl," he replied, bristling with patriotism.
"Is your sister plucky?"
"As plucky as I am; but perhaps that's not saying much. So you're glad I'm not a girl?"
"I wouldn't metamorphose you, and lose my comrade. Still, if your sister were like you, and not an heiress, I should——"
"Like to meet her. But she would probably detest me, and wonder how her brother could have endured my society for weeks on end."
I was looking back, as I spoke, at the Boy, who was close behind, when suddenly his smile seemed to freeze, and springing forward he caught me by the coat sleeve.
"What's the matter?" I asked, for he was pale under the brown tan.
For an instant he did not answer. Then, with his lips trembling slightly, he smiled again. "I thought you were going to be killed, that's all," said he, "so I stopped you. You were looking back at me, but I saw that—that you were just going to tread on a stone which Fanny had loosened with her hoof as she passed. If you had stepped there, before you could regain your balance, you—but there's no use talking of it. Only do look where you're walking, won't you, when we're on a path like this? Now we can go on."
"Why, you little duffer, you're as white as a ghost!" I exclaimed. "If the stone had slipped I should have jumped back. The path isn't really so narrow. It only gives that effect because it's steep, and hangs over the edge of a precipice. Still, many thanks for your solicitude."
"I believe, after all, I'll have to rest for a minute," the Boy said apologetically. "I feel—a little queer. You needn't wait. I'm sorry you should see me like this. You'll think that there's nothing to choose between me and a girl. But I'm not always a coward."
"I know that well enough," I assured him. "You're not a coward now. But come on. You shall rest when the path widens, where the others are stopping."
I caught his hand to pull him along, since we could not walk abreast, and it was icy cold. Yet it was not for himself that he had feared, and my heart was very warm for the Little Pal, as I steered him carefully past the loose, flat stone on the edge of the narrow path.
Joseph and Innocentina, who had been driving Finois and Souris, allowing Fanny to follow at will, had called a halt with the three animals, in a green dell where the way widened. The muleteer had a handful of exquisite pink cyclamen, fragrant as violets, which he had been gathering from hidden nooks among the rocks, and he was in the act of presenting the flowers to Innocentina when we arrived, but she waved them aside, exclaiming at her young master's pale face.
The Boy explained that there might have been an accident, owing to Fanny, and the donkey girl broke into violent abuse of the brown velvet creature who was her favourite.
"Daughter of a thrice-accursed mother, and of a despicable race!" she cried in her odd patois, which it was often better not to understand too well. "Blighted and bloodthirsty beast! But look at her now, eating with an enormous appetite a branch as big as herself. Anaconda! She would eat if the world burned. If she had, with a stroke of her twenty times condemned hoof, hurled us all to death on the rocks below, she would still eat, not even looking over the cliff to see what had become of us."
"But you should not talk so," broke in Joseph, lover of animals. "It was not the fault of the little ane that the stone was loosened. How could she know? It is you who are hard of heart, to turn upon her thus. It is because you are Catholic, and believe that the beasts have no souls."
"It is better to have none than to be a heretic, and the soul burn," retorted Innocentina. "I am not hard-hearted. I love my young Monsieur, and would not see him injured, that is all; while you care for nothing in the world so much as your old Finois. Ah, I would I had the insouciance of the anes. It is after all that which keeps them young."
At this we laughed, which annoyed Innocentina so much that she at once fed to the maligned Fanny a bunch of charming yellow-pink mushrooms which my prophetic soul told me had been originally intended for her master's lunch.
Fortunately for us, Joseph—sadly wearing in his buttonhole the despised cyclamen—discovered a few more of these agreeable little vegetables, which he tested for our benefit by drawing his sturdy thumbnail along the stem, showing how the fluted undersurface flushed red at the touch, while the blood flowed carmine from the wound he made.
A short rest brought the colour back to the Boy's lips, but we did not go on again until we had eaten some of the chicken sandwiches which had been put up for me at the hotel. Climbing had made us hungry, although we had not been three hours on the way. And we had left the summer behind, on lower levels; we did not need to remind ourselves now that it was autumn. By noon we were en route again, but the brilliance of the day had gone. As we looked back at the world we were leaving, serrated mountains were dark against flying silver clouds, and when we neared the Col, a fierce north wind, which had been lying in wait for us above, swooped down like a great bird of prey. We had heard it shrieking from afar, but now we had penetrated into its very eyrie; and as we crept, like flies upon a wall, along the tiny path which merely roughened the sheer rock precipice, the wind caught and clawed us with savage glee.
For a wonder, the much-travelled Joseph had never before made the ascent of Mont Revard, therefore a certain pioneer instinct on which I pride myself, and yesterday's research in the admirable map of the Ministry of the Interior, alone gave us guidance. I did not see how we could have come wrong, yet each moment it appeared that our neglected path had reached its end, like an unwound tape-measure. Could it be possible that this broken, ill-mended thread was the clue which would eventually lead us to the Col de Pertuiset, and the chalet-hotel far away upon the summit of the mountain?
The Boy and I were ahead now, I sheltering him slightly from the cold blast with my body, as I walked before him. Presently the way turned abruptly, to zig-zag up a gap in the rock face, and I shouted a warning to Joseph to look after Innocentina and the animals, so steep and ruinous was the path. But I need not have been alarmed. A backward glance showed me that Joseph had anticipated my instructions, so far as Innocentina was concerned.
Not a word of complaint came from the Boy; indeed, it would have been difficult for him to utter it, even if he would, with the wind rudely pressing its seal upon his lips. But I held out a hand to him, and though he rebelled at first, an instant's silent tussle made me master of his, so that I could pull him up with little effort on his part.
In the deep gullies and hollows of this chasm below the Col, the wind had us at its mercy, and forced our breath down our throats. We were in deep shadow, though the sun should have been not far past the zenith, and looking up to learn the reason, we saw that a huge bank of woolly mist hung grey and heavy between us and the sky. Below—far, far below—we had a glimpse of the world we had left still bathed in September sunshine, warm and beautiful, with cloud-shadows flying over low grass mountains and distant lakes. Then we seemed to knock our heads against a dull grey ceiling, which noiselessly crumbled round us, and we were in the mist.
No longer was it a ceiling, but a sea in which we swam; a sea so cold that a shiver crept through our bones into our marrow. We had escaped the clutches of the wind, to drown in fog, and in five minutes I had beside me a small, ghostly form with frosted hair, and a white rime on his jacket. The Boy was like a figure on a great iced cake, for the ground was whitened too.
Luckily, the ascent was over, and we were on grassy, undulating land where stunted trees stood here and there like pointing wraiths in the misty gloom. Dimly I could see, now and then, a daub of paint, red as a splash of blood, on a dark boulder, to guide travellers towards the summit hotel. Had it not been for these, it would have been impossible to find the way, or keep it if found.
We could walk side by side here, and looking down at the Boy, I could see that he was shivering.
"Can it be that a few hours ago the mere exertion of walking made us so hot that we had to mop our foreheads, and fan ourselves with our hats?" I asked.
"Let's talk about it," said the Boy. "It may warm us, just to remember."
"Are you very cold?"
"Not so ve-r-y."
"Your teeth are chattering in your head. Stop, we'll have our overcoats out of the packs."
"I don't want mine."
"Nonsense; you must have it."
"To tell the truth, I haven't got it with me. I gave it to the upstairs waiter at Chamounix. He told me a lot about himself, and he was in trouble, poor fellow; he'd been discharged for some fault or other, and was so poor that he was going to walk home, in the farthest part of Switzerland. You see, I thought as I was on the way south, I wouldn't need an overcoat. I'd hardly ever wanted it so far, and the waiter was a small, slim chap, not much bigger than I am. Anyhow, we shall soon be at the hotel now, and we can walk fast."
He looked so white and spirit-like in the mist, with his big bright eyes made brighter by the tired shadows underneath, that I would not discourage him with the truth. If I had said that I feared we were lost in the mist, and perhaps might not reach the hotel for hours, he would have realised all his weariness and suffering. I made him wait, however, and when the ghostly procession of man, woman, and beasts had trailed up to us, I ordered a stop for Finois to be unloaded, that my overcoat might be unearthed.
In place of the workmanlike pack which the mule might have borne, had I not insisted on fulfilling a rash vow, my luggage was contained in twin brown hold-alls bought at Martigny, and covered with a waterproof cloth which was the property of Joseph.
Both these abominable rolls had to be taken off Finois' back and laid upon the whitened grass, as I had forgotten in which one was stuffed the coat that I had not worn for many days. Now at this bitter moment, could my valet but have known it, he had his full revenge. I longed for him as a thirsty traveller in the desert longs for a spring of water. Yet I knew, deep down in my desolate heart, that Locker would not have been able to cope with this crisis. In cities, he was more efficient than most of his kind, but the Unusual was a bugbear to him; and, lost in a freezing mountain mist, he would have lain down to die with my horrible hold-alls still strapped and bulging. It is a strange thing that most servants would consider themselves deeply injured if asked to bear half the hardships which their masters cheerfully undergo for the sheer fun of the thing.
Joseph came to my rescue, but, with all the good will in the world, he complicated matters. Finois, Fanny, and Souris pressed nearer, hoping for something to eat, and the two donkeys, discouraged and disheartened by the unexpected cold, were piteous, shivering objects, with their velvet hair bristling on end, their little legs knocking together. Even their faces seemed to have shrunk, and Fanny was all eyes and grey spectacles.
I opened the hateful object which, by its tuberculous knobs, I recognised as the one least often unpacked. It was there that I expected to find the coat, wrapped democratically round goodness knew how many spare boots, stockings, collars, and other small articles which Locker would never have allowed to come within speaking distance of each other. But, with the total depravity of inanimate things, the coat had escaped from the hold-all. In my certainty that I must come upon it sooner or later—at the bottom of everything, of course—I scattered the other contents recklessly about; and when at last I gave up the search in despair, the white ground was strewn with the most intimate accessories of my toilet. Seized with a Berserker rage, I tore open the second hold-all, and before the Boy could utter a cry of protest, more collars, handkerchiefs, brushes, and little horrors of every description peppered the earth. There were as many things there as the inestimable mother of the Swiss Family Robinson contrived to stow in her wonderful bag during the five minutes before the shipwreck—things which fulfilled all the wants of the young Robinsons for the period of seventeen years. But, naturally, the one thing I needed was missing; and now that it was too late, I vaguely recalled seeing that overcoat hanging limply on a peg in the wardrobe of some hotel whose very name I had now forgotten.
If I had been a woman, I should inevitably have burst into tears, and somebody would have comforted me, and everything would immediately have been all right. As it was, I used several of Innocentina's most lurid phrases, under my breath, and announced my intention of abandoning my luggage on the mountain-side, rather than attempt the impossible task of feeding it again to the monsters which had disgorged it.
"Poor Man!" exclaimed the Boy. "Why didn't you confide to me before, that you were physically and mentally incapable of packing? I've often noticed that your hold-alls looked like overfed boa constrictors, but I didn't dream things were as bad as this. You had better let Innocentina and me do the work for you. We're what you call 'nailers' at it, I assure you."
I made a snatch at a dressing-gown, which I rescued from the conglomerate heap before he could push me away. Then, with the garment hung over my arm, I stood by helplessly with Joseph, while Innocentina and the Boy, with incredible swiftness and skill, set about the business from which I had been dismissed. Somewhat after this fashion must the work of Creation have been done, when there was only Chaos to begin upon.
In five minutes all my scattered horrors had been sorted neatly, according to their species, like the animals forming in procession for the ark; collars after their kind; boots after their kind; and so on, down to the humble shoestring and mean shirt-stud. Never had those loathsome inventions of an evil mind, my hold-alls, so closely resembled self-respecting members of the luggage fraternity as they did when the Boy and Innocentina had finished with them.
With a sigh of relief the Little Pal jumped up from his grim task, leaving Joseph to fasten the straps; and as he got to his feet, his small hands purple with cold, I wrapped the dressing-gown round his shoulders. Then, seeing his slight figure engulfed in it, like a very small pea in a very big pod, I burst out laughing.
"Is that what you wanted?" cried the Boy. "I won't have it. I won't! I'd rather freeze than be a guy. Put it on yourself."
"I don't need it. It was for you. Don't be ungrateful, after all my trouble."
"All my trouble, you mean. Take off the horrid thing. I won't wear it. Let me alone."
Unmoved by his complaints, I still held him prisoner, using the dressing-gown as a strait-jacket, while he fought in my grasp. A sudden suppressed giggle from Innocentina at this juncture seemed to drive him to frenzy.
"If you don't let me go, I'll—I'll box your ears!" he stammered.
"Try it," I advised sternly.
He could not move his arms, so closely I held him, but his eyes were blazing.
"You'll be sorry for this some day," he panted.
"Will you keep on the dressing-gown, if I let you go?".
"Then will you wear my coat?"
"What! And have you in your shirt-sleeves? Rather not. Let me——"
"I'll give you the coat and wear the dressing-gown myself. I'm not as vain as a girl."
Whether the thought of what my appearance would be in the gown, or the taunt I flung at him, moved the Boy, I cannot say, but suddenly his struggles ceased.
"I'll wear anything you like," said he with a sudden accession of meekness, so unexpected that I was alarmed for his health, and gazed at him closely to see if he were on the verge of a collapse. Instead of looking ill, however, he was no longer pinched and pallid, but radiant with colour. Rage had produced a beneficial effect upon his circulation.
On his promise, I released him, nor did I insist when he waved me aside, and hurriedly girded up the dressing-gown himself. The garment reached almost to his feet, and the quaintness of the little figure shrouded in its dark folds and hatted with Panama straw, in the midst of a mountain snow-cloud, was a sight to make Fanny laugh; but I kept a grave face, and so did Joseph and Innocentina, though the donkey-girl's eyes were bright.
We marched on again when Finois had been reloaded, the party keeping well together, lest we should lose each other in this mist which was snow, this snow which was mist. The Boy and I walked ahead at first; I silent lest I should laugh, he silent—probably—lest he should cry. The woolly cloud wrapped its folds round us thicker and closer, so that objects a dozen feet away were blotted out of sight, and for all practical purposes ceased to exist. The silvery rime, freezing as it fell, covered stones and boulders so that it was no longer possible to see the red splashes which marked the way. Soon, we were hopelessly lost, plunging down into grassy hollows, where our feet slipped between rough stones into muddy ruts concealed under a treacherous film of white, or plodding up to the top of knolls which proved to have no connection with anything else, when we had toilsomely attained them.
By-and-bye I knew how a man feels in a treadmill, and I was anxious for the Boy's sake, seeing the queer little figure in the panama and dressing-gown gradually droop, despite the brave spirit with which it was animated. Losing confidence in my boasted ability as a pioneer, I called Joseph to the rescue, and bade him take the lead.
Having intruded upon him suddenly, behind the screen of snow-cloud, I found him engaged in the Samaritan act—no doubt carried out on purely humanitarian principles—of warming one of Innocentina's hands in his. I simulated blindness with such histrionic skill that honest Joseph was deceived thereby; but not so Innocentina. She tossed her head, and folded her arms in her cape as if it had been the toga of a Roman senator unjustly accused of treason. She had been, so she assured me, at that instant on the point of coming forward to entreat her young monsieur to mount Fanny, since he must be deadly tired; but the Boy, joining us at the moment, denied excessive fatigue and said that he would freeze if he rode. Besides, he added, it would be cruel to burden Fanny, in her present state of depression. The most likely thing was that we should have to carry her; and if she continued to shrink at her present rate per minute, soon we could slip her into one of our pockets.
Joseph, promoted to the post of honour, forged ahead; and either Fanny and Souris insisted upon following Finois, or else Innocentina felt called upon to continue the process of conversion even in adverse circumstances; at all events, the Boy and I almost immediately found ourselves in the background, all that we could see of our companions being a tassel-like grey tail quivering above a moving blur of little legs, scarcely thicker than toothpicks.
The Boy, who was still sulking in the dressing-gown, suddenly broke by a spasmodic chuckle the silence which had blended chillingly with the weather.
"What's up?" I enquired, thawing joyously in the brief gleam of moral sunshine.
"I was only thinking that if Innocentina wants to convert Joseph from heresy she'd better not lecture him to-day about eternal fire. The idea is too inviting. I never envied anyone so much as my namesake, St. Laurence, on his gridiron. It would be a luxury to grill."
"Perhaps the gridiron was to him what my dressing-gown is to you," said I.
"I'm getting resigned to it. That's the reason I'm talking to you. I hated you for five minutes; but—you never like people so much as when you've just finished hating them."
"Which means that I'm forgiven?"
"That, and something more."
"Good imp! The thermometer is rising. But I feel a beast to have got you into this scrape. If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have known that a mule-path existed on Mont Revard."
"I'm not sorry we came. This will be something to remember always. It's a real adventure. Afterwards we shall get the point of view."
"I wish we could get one now," said I. "But the prospect isn't cheerful. Molly Winston's prophecy is being fulfilled. She was certain that sooner or later I should be lost on a mountain; and her sketch of me, curled up in sleeping-sack and tent, toasting my toes before a fire of twigs, and eating tinned soup, steaming hot, made me long to lose myself immediately. But, alas! a peasant child near Piedimulera is basking at this moment in my woolly sack, and battening on my Instantaneous Breakfasts."
"Don't think of them," said the Boy. "That way madness lies. A chapter in my book shall be called, 'How to be Happy though Freezing.'"