"What would be your definition of the state, precisely?"
"Being with Somebody you—like."
My temperature bounded up several degrees, thanks to these amends, but our sole comfort was in each other, since Joseph had no hope to give. At this moment he parted the mist-curtain to remark that he could find no traces of a path or landmark of any kind.
Hours dragged on, and we were still wandering aimlessly, as one wanders in a troubled dream. We were chilled to the bone, and as it was by this time late in the afternoon, I began to fear that we should have to spend the night on the mountain-side. Revard was wreaking vengeance upon us for taking his name in vain. We had made naught of him as a mountain; now he was showing us that, were he sixteen thousand feet high instead of four, he could scarcely put us to more serious inconvenience.
I was growing gravely anxious about the Boy, though the bitter cold and great fatigue had not quenched his spirit, when the smell of cattle and the muffled sound of human voices put life into the chill, dead body of the mist. A house loomed before us, and I sprang to the comforting conclusion that we had stumbled upon one of the outlying offices of the hotel, but an instant showed me my mistake. The low building was a rough stone chalet with two or three cowherds outside the door, and these men stared in surprise and curiosity at our ghostly party.
"Are we far from the hotel?" I asked in French, but no gleam of understanding lightened their faces; and it was not until Joseph had addressed them in the most extraordinary patois I had ever heard, that they showed signs of intelligence. "Hoo-a-long, hoo-a-long, walla-ha?" he remarked, or words to that effect.
"Squall-a-doo, soo-a-lone, bolla-hang," returned one of the men, suddenly wound up to gesticulate with violence.
"He says that the hotel is about half an hour's walk from here," Joseph explained to me, looking wistful. And my own feelings gave me the clue to that look's significance.
"Thank goodness!" I exclaimed heartily. "But it would be tempting Providence to pass this house, which is at least a human habitation, without resting and warming the blood in our veins. Perhaps we can get something to eat for ourselves and the donkeys—to say nothing of something to drink."
Another exchange of words like brickbats afforded us the information, when translated, that we could obtain black bread, cheese, and brandy; also that we were welcome to sit before the fire.
I pushed the Boy in ahead of me, but he fell back. The stench which struck us in the face as the door opened was like an evil-smelling pillow, thrown with good aim by an unseen hand. Mankind, dog-kind, cow-kind, chicken-kind, and cheese-kind, together with many ingredients unknown to science, combined in the making of this composite odour, and its strength sent the Boy reeling into my arms.
"No, I can't stand it," he gasped. "I shall faint. Better freeze than suffocate."
But I forced him in; and in five minutes, to our own self-loathing, we had become almost inured to the smell. Eat we could not, but we drank probably the worst brandy in all Europe or Asia, and slowly our blood began once more to take its normal course. A spurious animation soon enabled the Boy to start on again; one of the cowherds pointed out the path, and for a time all went well with our little band, even Fanny and Souris having revived on black crusts of mediaeval bread. But the half-hour in which we had been told we might cover the distance between chalet and hotel lengthened into an hour. The mist grew greyer, and thicker, and darker, misleading us almost as cleverly as its sophisticated English cousin, a London fog. Again and again we lost our way. Owing to the fatigue of the Boy and Innocentina, and the utter dejection of the unfortunate little donkeys, we could not walk fast enough to keep our blood warm, and my tweeds, in which I was buttoned to the chin, seemed to afford no more protection than newspaper.
When I remarked this to the Boy he replied with a faint chuckle that he felt like a newspaper himself—"a newspaper," he repeated, shivering, "with the smallest circulation in the world. And if it weren't for your dressing-gown there wouldn't be any circulation left at all."
The day, which had begun in summer and ended in winter, was darkening to night when Joseph, who was in advance, cried out that he had flattened his nose against something solid, which was probably the wall of the hotel. No blur of yellow light penetrated the gloom, but a few minutes of anxious groping brought us to a door—rather an elaborate, pretentious door, which instantly dispelled all fear that we had come upon another chalet, or perchance a barn.
"Is the gentleman anonymous? Is he a great unknown?" —SHAKESPEARE.
While Joseph and Innocentina remained outside with the animals, the Boy and I entered a long, dark corridor, dimly lighted at the far end. Half-way down we came upon a porter, whose look of surprise would have told us (if we had not learned through bitter experience already) that Mont Revard's season was over. He guided us to the door of a large salon, which he threw open with an air of wishing to justify the hotel; and despite the load of weariness under which the Boy was almost fainting, he whipped the dressing-gown off in a flash, shook the snow from his panama, squaring his little shoulders, and re-entered civilisation with a jauntiness which denied exhaustion and did credit to his pride. Nevertheless, he availed himself of the first easy-chair, and dropped into it as a ripe apple drops from its leafy home into the long grass.
The porter scampered off to send us the landlord, and to see to the comfort of Joseph and Innocentina, until they and their charges could be definitely provided for. While we waited—the Boy leaning back, pale and silent, in an exaggerated American rocking-chair, I standing on guard beside him—there was time to look about at our surroundings.
The room was immense, and on a warm, bright day of midsummer might have been delightful, with its polished mosaic floor, its painted basket chairs and little tables, and its standard lamps with coloured silk shades. But to-day a stuffy, red-curtained bar-parlour would have been more cheerful.
At first, I thought we were alone in the waste of painted wicker-work, for there had been dead silence on our entrance; but hardly had we settled ourselves to await the coming of the landlord, when a movement at the far end of the big, dim room told me that it had other occupants. Two men in knickerbockers were sitting on low chairs drawn close to a fireplace, and both were looking round at us with evident curiosity.
As the Boy's chair had its high back half-turned in their direction, all they could see of him was a little hand dangling over the arm of the chair, and a small foot in a stout, workmanlike walking boot, laced far up the ankle. I stood facing them; and though the sole illumination came flickering from a newly kindled fire, or filtered through the red shades of three large lamps, not only could they see what manner of man I was, but I could study their personal characteristics.
In these I was conscious of no lively interest; but as the men continued to gaze over their shoulders at me, and the Boy's chair, I decided that they were from the States. They were both young, clean-shaven, good-looking; with clear features, keen eyes, and prominent chins, reminiscent of the attractive "Gibson type" of American youth.
"Well," said one to the other, turning away from his brief but steady inspection of the newcomers, "I thought we were the only two fools stranded here for the night in this weather, but it seems there are a couple more."
Their voices had a carrying quality which brought the words distinctly to our ears. Suddenly the "rocker" was agitated, and the Boy's feet came to the ground. Nervously, he jerked the chair round so that its back was completely turned to the men at the other end of the room. His eyes looked so big, and his face was so deeply stained with a quick rush of colour, that I feared he was ill.
"Anything wrong?" I asked, bending towards him, with my hand on his chair.
"Nothing. I was only—a little surprised to hear people talking, that's all. I thought we had the room to ourselves."
His voice was a whisper, and I pitched mine to his in answering. "So did I at first, but it seems two countrymen of yours are before us. I wonder if they have had adventures to equal ours? Probably we shall find out at dinner, for this looks the sort of hotel to herd its guests together at one long table."
The Boy's hand closed sharply on the arm of his chair. "I'm too tired to dine in public," said he, still in the same muffled voice. "I shall have something to eat in my room—if I ever get one."
"If that's your game," said I, "I'll play it with you. We'll ask them to give us a sitting-room of sorts, and we'll dine there together like kings."
"No, no. You must go down. I shall have my dinner in bed. I'm worn out. What are—those men at the other end of the room like?"
"Like sketches from New York Life," I replied. "One is dark, the other fair, with a deep cleft in his chin, and a nose so straight it might have been ruled. Better take a look at them. Perhaps you may have met at home."
"All the more reason for not looking," said the Boy. "Thank goodness, here comes the landlord."
We could have had twenty rooms if we wished, for, said our host, throwing a glance across the salon, he had only two other guests besides ourselves. They had come up by the funicular, meaning to walk next morning down to Chambery, but whether they could do so or not depended on the weather. In any case, the hotel would close for the season in a few days now, and the funicular cease to run. Fires should be laid in our rooms immediately, and we should be made comfortable, but as for our animals, unfortunately there were no stables attached to the hotel, no accommodation whatever for four-footed creatures. They would have to go back to the chalet, where they and their drivers could be put up for the night.
"That will not do for Innocentina," exclaimed the boy quickly. In his eagerness he raised his voice slightly, and the two young men at the other end of the salon seemed waked suddenly to renewed interest in us and our affairs. But the Boy's tone fell again instantly. "Innocentina must have a room at this hotel," he went on. "The chalet will be bad enough for Joseph. For her it would be impossible. Joseph won't mind taking the donkeys down and caring for them this one night, for Innocentina's sake."
"If know Joseph, it will afford him infinite satisfaction; and the more intense his physical suffering, the happier he'll be in the thought that he is bearing it for her," I replied. "I'll go out and break the news to the poor chap."
The Boy sprang up. "No, no; don't leave me alone!" he cried. Then, as I looked surprised, he added, more quietly: "I mean I'll go with you, and talk to Innocentina. Meanwhile, our things can be sent up to our rooms."
Though he had asked "what the men at the other end of the room were like," he showed no desire to verify for himself the description I had given. He kept his back religiously turned towards his countrymen, and did not throw a single glance their way as we left the salon with the landlord, though I saw that the two young Americans were interested in him.
We returned to the door at the end of the long corridor, where we had entered the hotel ten or fifteen minutes earlier, and found Joseph, Innocentina, and the animals still sheltering against the house wall. The porter had already retailed the bad news, and the faithful muleteer had of his own accord volunteered to play the part which the Boy and I had assigned him. Though he was tired, cold, and hungry, and had the prospect of a gloomy walk, with a night of discomfort to follow, he was far from being depressed; and I thought I knew what supported him in his hour of trial.
We saw him off, followed by a piteous trail of asshood, and then, shivering once more, we re-entered the dim corridor. Innocentina, much subdued, was with us now, carrying the famous bag in its snow-powdered ruecksack, while a porter went before with the rest of the luggage, taken from the tired backs of our beasts. We had reached the foot of the stairs, when we came so suddenly face to face with the two Americans that it almost seemed we had stumbled upon an ambush.
They stared very hard at the Boy, who did not give them a glance, though I was conscious of a stiffening of his muscles. He turned his head a little on one side, so that the shadow of the panama eclipsed his face from their point of view; but I could see that he had first grown scarlet, then white.
"By Jove, but it can't be possible!" I heard one of the men say as we passed and began to ascend the stairs. The answer I did not hear; but Innocentina, who was close behind me, glared with unchristian malevolence at the young men, as if instinct whispered that they were concerning themselves unnecessarily about her master's business.
The Boy ran upstairs as lightly as if he had never known fatigue. The porter showed him his room; his luggage was taken in, and then he came out to me in the passage.
"You told Joseph that he needn't come up very early to-morrow, didn't you?" he enquired.
"Yes, as we're pretty well fagged, and Chambery isn't an all-day's journey, I thought we might take our time in the morning. That suits you, doesn't it?" (It was really of him that I had been thinking, but I did not say so.)
"Oh, yes," he answered absentmindedly, as if already his brain were busy with something else. "What time did you fix for starting? I didn't hear?"
"I said to Joseph that it would do if he were on hand at half-past ten. You can rest till nine o'clock."
"Thank you. And now, good night. You've been very kind to-day. Maybe I didn't seem grateful, but I was, all the same; very, very grateful."
"Nonsense!" said I. "If you're too tired to go down, shan't I have my dinner with you? We could have a table drawn up before the fire, and it would be quite jolly."
He shook his head, a great weariness in his eyes. "I'm too done up for society, even yours. I'd rather you went down. You will, won't you?"
"Certainly, if you won't have me. Rest well. I shall see that they send you up something decent."
"It doesn't matter. I'm not as hungry as I was, somehow. Good night, Man."
"Good night, Boy."
"Shake hands, will you?"
He pressed mine with all his little force, and shook it again and again, looking up in my face. Then he bade me "Good night" once more, abruptly, and retreated into his room.
I went to my quarters at the other end of the passage, and was glad of the fire which had begun to roar fiercely in a small round stove, like a gnome with a pipe growing out of his head. I had a sponge, changed, and descended to the salon, only to learn that the eating arrangements were carried on in another building, at some distance from the hotel. Feeling like a belated insect of summer overtaken by winter cold, I darted down the path indicated, to the restaurant, where I found the Americans, already seated at just such a long table as I had pictured, and still in their knickerbockers. There was, in the big room, a sprinkling of little tables under the closed windows, but they were not laid for a meal; and a chair being pulled out for me by a waiter, exactly opposite my two fellow-guests, I took it and sat down.
My first thought was to order something for the Little Pal, and to secure a promise that it should reach him hot, and soon. I then devoted myself to my own dinner, which would have been more enjoyable had I had the Boy's companionship. I had worked slowly through soup and fish, and arrived at the inevitable veal, when I was addressed by one of the Americans—him of the cleft chin and light curly hair, whose voice I had heard first in the salon.
"You came up by the mule path, didn't you?"
I answered civilly in the affirmative, aware that all my "points" were being noted by both men.
"Must have been a stiff journey in this weather."
"We came into the mist and snow just below the Col."
"Your friend is done up, isn't he?"
"Oh, he's a very plucky young chap," I replied, careful for the Boy's reputation as a pilgrim; "but he's a bit fagged, and will be better off dining in his own room."
"I expect he'll be all right to-morrow. Are you going to try and get to Chambery, or will you return to Aix by train?"
"We shall push on, unless we're snowed in," I said.
"That's our plan, too. I dare say we shall be starting about the same time, and if so, if you don't mind, we might join forces."
"Now, what is this chap's game?" I asked myself. "He isn't drawing me out for nothing; and as these two are together they have no need of companionship. There's some special reason why they want to join us."
Taking this for granted, the one reason which occurred to me as probable, was a previous acquaintance with the Boy, which they wished to keep up, and he did not wish to acknowledge. I determined that he should not be thus entrapped, through me.
"That would be very pleasant, no doubt," I replied; "but you had better not wait for us. Our time of starting is uncertain."
Though I spoke with perfect civility, it must have been clear to them that I preferred not to have my party enlarged by strangers, and I rather regretted the necessity for this ungraciousness, as the men were gentlemen, and I usually got on excellently with Americans.
"Oh, very well," returned the handsomer of the two, looking slightly offended. "We shall meet on the way down, perhaps. By-the-by, if I'm not mistaken, your young friend is a compatriot of ours. He's American, isn't he?"
"I believe I've met him in New York, though it was so dark I couldn't be sure. Do you object to telling me his name?"
"I'm afraid I do object," I answered, stiffly this time. "You must satisfy yourself as to his identity, if it interests you, when you see each other to-morrow."
Of all that remained of dinner, I can only say the words which Hamlet spoke in dying; for indeed, "the rest was silence."
Directly the meal was over, I hurried back to the hotel, like a rabbit to its warren; smoked a pipe before a roaring fire in my bedroom, and wondered if the Little Pal were wandering "down the uncompanioned way" of dreamland. As for me, I never got as far as that land. I fell over a precipice without a bottom, before my head had found a nest in the soft pillow, and knew nothing more until suddenly I started awake with the impression that someone had called.
"What is it, Boy? Do you want me?" I heard myself asking sharply, as my eyes opened.
It seemed that I had not been asleep for ten minutes, but to my surprise an exquisite, rosy light filled the room. Well-nigh before I knew whether I were sleeping or waking, I was out of bed and at the window.
It was the light of sunrise, shining over a billowy white world, for the fog had been rent asunder, and through its torn, woolly folds, I caught an unforgettable glimpse of glory. The sky was a rippling lake of red-gold fire, whose reflection turned a hundred snow-clad mountain-crests to blazing helmets for Titans. Above the majestic ranks rose their leader, towering head and shoulders over all. "Mont Blanc!" I had just time to say to myself in awed admiration, when the snow-fog was knit together again, only a jagged line of fading gold showing the stitches.
Nobody had called me; I knew that, now, yet I had an uneasy impression that someone wanted me somewhere, and that something was wrong. It was stupid to let this worry me, I told myself, however; and having lingered a few moments at the window studying the lovely pattern of frost-work lace on the glass, and the fringe of priceless pearls on branch of bush, and stunted tree, I went back to bed. There, I pulled my watch out from under my pillow, and looked at it. "Only six o'clock," I yawned. "Three good hours more of sleep. I wonder if the Boy——" Then I tumbled over another pleasant precipice.
When I waked again, it was almost nine, and nerving myself to the inevitable, I rang for a cold bath. The morning was bitterly chill, but the tingling water soon sent the blood racing through my veins, and by ten o'clock I was knocking at the Boy's door. No answer came, and thinking that he must already be down, I was on my way across the white, frozen grass to the restaurant, when I met the muleteer coming up with Finois.
"Hallo, Joseph!" I exclaimed in surprise. "Where are Fanny and Souris?"
"Innocentina has taken them, Monsieur," he answered.
"What—they have started?"
"But yes, Monsieur, and very early."
"Tell me what happened," I prompted him.
"Why, Monsieur, it was this way. There was not much sleep for me last night, if you will pardon my liberty in mentioning such matters, because of the little animal which bites and jumps away. I know not what you call him in your language, though I think he is known in all lands. Besides, the beasts were noisy in the stable underneath the room where I lay with the men. About half-past four the others got up, but I lay still, as it was well with my animals, and there was no hurry. But a little more than an hour later, they called me from below, laughing, and saying there was a lady to see me. I had not undressed, Monsieur, for many reasons, and now I was glad, for I knew who it must be, though not why she should be there, and so early too. I could not bear that she should be alone with these rough fellows, and in two minutes I had tumbled down the ladder.
"I had not been mistaken, Monsieur. It was Innocentina. She said her master had sent her down to fetch the anes, as he was obliged by certain circumstances to start on in advance of my master. I did not ask her any questions, but I helped her get ready the donkeys, and I would have walked up with her to the hotel, had she permitted it. If I did so, she said, the cattle men would talk; so I stayed behind."
"Well, I suppose we shall overtake them," I replied, hiding surprise, as I did not care to let Joseph see that I had been left in the dark concerning this strange change of programme. My mind groped for an explanation of the mystery, and then suddenly seized upon one. The Boy, who had evidently met his two compatriots in other days and another land, disliked and wished to shun them. He had feared that they might be our companions down to Chambery, and had taken drastic measures to avoid their society. Rather than get me up early, for his convenience, after a day of some hardship and fatigue, the plucky little chap had gone off without us. Possibly I should find that he had left a note for me, with some waiter or femme de chambre. If not, our route down to Chambery and the hotel at which we were to stay there, had already been decided upon. He would have said to himself that there could be no mistake, and that he might trust me to find him at our destination.
The Americans were not at breakfast, but later, as Joseph, Finois, and I were starting, I saw them standing at a distance in the corridor. The porter, who had brought down the miserable hold-alls, and was waiting for his tip, murmured that "ces messieurs" were not going to make the walking expedition to Chambery; the landlord had advised them that the weather was too bad, and they had decided to return by the noon train to Aix-les-Bains.
I felt that I owed the young men a grudge for the Boy's defection; and as there had been no note or message from him, I was not in a forgiving mood. Without a second glance towards the pair, I walked away with Joseph—alone with him for the first time in many a day.
The Vanishing of the Prince
"Now to my word: It is, Adieu, adieu! remember me." —SHAKESPEARE.
As we dipped down below the summit of the mountain, we stepped from under the snow-fog, as if it had been a great white, hanging nightcap. The air smelled like early winter, and was vibrant with the melody of cowbells. On snow-covered eminences near and far, dark, sentinel larches watched us, weeping slow tears from every naked spine. So high had they climbed, so acclimatised to the mountains did these soldier-trees seem, that I named them for myself the Chasseurs Alpins of the forest.
"We shall have fine weather to-morrow," said Joseph, as we left the snow and came to what he called the "terre grasse," which was greasy and slippery under foot. "See, Monsieur, a worm; he comes up out of his hole, and the earth clings to him as he walks abroad. If he were clean, that would be a sign of another bad day to follow."
"At least we are going down to summer again," I replied; "also to the young Monsieur; and to Innocentina. But perhaps you are glad of a rest from her sharp tongue."
Joseph shrugged his shoulders. "I am used to it now, Monsieur," said he; and I turned away my face to hide a smile. I knew that he missed the girl, and I was still more keenly aware that I missed a comrade. My fleeting impressions were hardly worth catching and taming, without him to help cage them; without his vivid mind to help colour the thoughts, which mine only sketched in black and white, it was easier to leave the canvas blank.
We had decided last night that it would not be wise to attempt the journey by way of the Dent du Nivolets, as it was on a higher level than the summit of Mont Revard, and we should risk being again extinguished under a nightcap of snow. We descended, therefore, by the simpler and shorter route, but it was full of interest for the strangeness of the landscape, and the buildings which we reached on lower planes.
The houses were no longer characteristically French, but a bastard Swiss. The heavy, overhanging roofs were thatched, and of enormous thickness; the walls of grey stone, with roughly carved, skeleton balconies. The peasants no longer smiled at us in good-natured curiosity, but regarded us dourly, though they were gravely civil if we had questions to ask.
Although I gave Joseph no instructions, and he made no suggestions, by common consent we hastened on as if a prize were to be bestowed for our good speed, at the end of the journey. On other days we had sauntered, allowing the animals to snatch delicious hors d'oeuvres from the bushes as they passed, but to-day Finois was in the depths of gloom. There was no grey Souris, no spectacled Fanny-anny to cheer him on the way, and if he reached out a wistful mouth towards a branch, he was hurried past it. How would we feel, I asked myself, if, with the inner man clamouring, we were driven remorselessly along a road decked on either side with exquisitely appointed tables, set out with all our favourite dishes, to be had for nothing—never once allowed to stop for a crumb of pate de foie gras, or a bit of chicken in aspic? Yet asking myself this, I had no mercy on Finois.
We stopped for lunch at a queer auberge, in an abortive village appropriately named Les Deserts, where the highroad for Chambery began. An outer room roughly flagged with stone, was kitchen, nursery, and family living-room in one. It swarmed with children, and was presided over by two of Macbeth's witches, who were not separated from their cauldrons. I took them to be rival mothers-in-law, and they could have taught Innocentina some choice new expressions valuable to test upon donkeys or other heretics; but they sent me a steaming bowl of excellent coffee, when I half expected poison; fried me a couple of eggs with crisp brown lace round the edges, and took for my benefit, from one of the shelves that lined the nursery wall, the newest of a hundred loaves of hard black bread.
I ventured to ask a down-trodden daughter-in-law of the Ladies of the Cauldrons, whether a very young gentleman, and an older but still all-young woman, with two donkeys, had stopped at the auberge some hours earlier.
The spiritless one shook her head. But no. The only other customers of the house thus far had been the postman and two soldiers. The party might have passed. She and her parents were too busy to take note of what went on outside. A faint chill of desolation touched me. It would have been cheering to have news of the Boy and his cavalcade en route.
By three o'clock Chambery was well in sight, lying far below us as we wound down from mountain heights, and looking, from our point of view, in position something like an inferior Aosta. It basked in a great sun-swept plain, and away to the left a lateral valley, dimly blue, opened towards Modane and the Mont Cenis. Descending, we found the resemblance carried on by a few ancient chateaux and fortified farmhouses, and as we had now come upon a part of the road which Joseph knew, he pointed out to me, in the far distance, the little villa, Les Charmettes, where Rousseau and Madame de Warens kept house together. Again and again I thought we were on the point of arriving in the town, and had visions of exchanging adventures with the Boy at the Hotel de France; but always the place seemed to recede before our eyes, elusive as a mirage, alighting again five or six miles away; and this it did, not once, but several times, with singular skill and accuracy.
At last, however, after a tedious tramp along a monotonously level road, upon which we had plunged suddenly, we came into an old town, all grey, with the soft grey of storks' wings. The place had a mild dignity of its own—as befitted the ancient capital of Savoie—and might have lived, if necessary, on the romantic reputation of its ancient chateau, standing up high and majestic above a populous modern street. There was an air of almost courtly refinement that reminded me of the wide, sedate avenues of Versailles; and no doubt this effect was largely due to the fine statues and decorative grouping of the arcaded streets. One monument was so imposing and so unique, that I forgot for a moment my anxiety to find the Boy and hear his news. The huge pile held me captive, staring up at a miniature Nelson column, supported on the backs of four colossal elephants sculptured in grey granite of true elephant-colour. These benevolent mammoths, not content with the duty of bearing a tower of stone with a more than life-sized general balancing on top of it, generously spent their spare time in pouring volumes of water from wrinkled trunks into a huge basin. Joseph knew that the balancing general, De Boigne, had used a vast fortune made in the service of an Indian prince, to shower benefits on his native town, as his elephants showered water, and that it was in gratitude to him that Chambery had raised the monument; but I was disappointed to learn that the elephants had no prototypes in real life. It would have satisfied my imagination to hear that the soldier of fortune had returned from the Orient to his birthplace, with the four original elephants following him like dogs, having refused to be left behind. But nothing is quite perfect in history, and one usually feels that one could have arranged the incidents more dramatically one's self; indeed, some historians seem to have found the temptation irresistible.
Joseph promised other choice bits of interest in and near mountain-ringed Chambery; but I had small appetite for sightseeing without the Boy, and after my brief reverence to the elephants, I hurried the muleteer and mule to the hotel.
At the door we were met by a porter, far too polite a person to betray the surprise which my companions Joseph and Finois invariably excited in civilisation. He helped to unfasten the pack, and as it disappeared into the vestibule, I was about to bid Joseph au revoir. But his face gave me pause. Like the key to a cipher, it told me all the secret workings of his mind.
"You might wait here before putting up Finois," I said, "until I enquire inside whether the young Monsieur and Innocentina have arrived safely. No doubt they have, as we did not catch them up on the road, and it would have been difficult to mistake the way. Still——"
"Voila, Monsieur!" exclaimed Joseph, his deep eyes brightening at something to be seen over my shoulder.
I turned, and there was meek, grey Souris leading the way for Innocentina and Fanny, who were trailing slowly towards us down the street.
I was delighted to see them. Not until now had I realised how beautiful was Innocentina, how engaging the two little plush-coated donkeys. I loved all three.
"Eh bien, Innocentina!" I gaily cried. "How are you? How is your young Monsieur?"
"He was well when I saw him last," returned Innocentina. "He must be very far away by this time."
"Very far away?" I echoed her words blankly. "Yes, Monsieur. Here is a letter, which he told me to deliver to you without fail. I was not to leave Chambery until I had put it into your hand, myself. I was on my way to your hotel, to see if you had arrived. Now that I have seen you"—here a starry flash at Joseph—"I can begin my journey."
"Where, if I may ask?"
"Towards my home. Monsieur had better read his letter."
I had taken the sealed envelope mechanically, without looking at it. Now I fixed my eyes upon the address, which was written in a firm, original, and interesting hand, that impressed me as familiar, though I could not think where I had seen it. Certainly, so far as I could remember, in all my journeyings with him I had never happened to see the Boy's handwriting. Yet Innocentina said this letter was from him.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I could do something more enlightening than stare at the envelope: I could open it. I did so, breaking a seal with the same monogram I had noticed on the gold fittings in the celebrated bag. Apparently the entwined letters were M.R.L.
"Forgive me, dear Man," were the first words I read, and they rang like a knell in my heart. Without going further I knew what was coming. I was to hear that I had lost the Boy.
"Dear Man, the Prince vanishes, not because he wishes it, but because he must. He can't explain. But, though you may not understand now, believe this. He has been happier in these wanderings, since you and he were friends, than he ever was before. You have been more than good to the troublesome 'Brat' who has upset all your arrangements and calculations so often. Perhaps you may never see the Boy any more. Yet, who knows what may happen at Monte Carlo? Anyhow, whatever comes in the future, he will never forget, never cease to care for you; and of one thing besides he is sure. Never again will he like any other man as much as the One Man who deserves to begin with a capital.
"Good-bye, dear Man, and all good things be with you, wherever you may go, is the prayer of—Boy."
Perhaps never to see the Boy again! Why, I must be dreaming this. I should wake up soon, and everything would be as it had been. I had the sensation of having swallowed something very large and very cold, which would not melt. Reading the letter over for the second time made it no better, but rather worse. The Boy had become almost as important in my scheme of life as my lungs or my legs, and I did not quite see, at the moment, how it would be any more possible to get on without one than the other.
Behold, I was stricken down by mine own familiar friend; yet no wrath against him burned within me; there was only that cold lump of disappointment, which seemed to be increasing to the size of a small iceberg. Even lacking explanations, or attempt at them, I knew that he had told the truth without flattery. He had wanted to stay, yet he had gone. And he said that perhaps I might never see him again! If I could have had my choice last night, whether to have the Boy lopped off my life, or to lose a hand, the probabilities are that I would have sacrificed the hand. But I had been offered no choice.
I recalled our parting, and found new meaning in the words he had spoken at his door. There was no doubt about it; even then he had decided to break away from me.
I realised this, and at the same instant rebelled against the decision. I determined not to accept it. He had vanished because of the two Americans; exactly why, I could not even guess, but I was certain that the reason was not to his discredit. To theirs, perhaps, but not to his. Nevertheless, they were somehow to blame for my loss, and if the young men had appeared at this moment, I should have been impelled to do them a mischief.
The principal thing was, however, not to let them cheat me irrevocably of my comrade. I would not depend solely upon that hint about Monte Carlo. I would find out where he had gone, and I would follow. Let him be angry if he would. His anger, though a hot flame while it burned, never endured long.
"Did Monsieur leave here by rail?" I enquired of Innocentina.
She shrugged her shoulders. "That I cannot tell."
"Do you mean you can't, or won't?"
"I know nothing, Monsieur, except that I have been paid well, and told that I may go home as soon as I like, and by what route I like, having delivered the letter to Monsieur. My young master gave me enough to return with the donkeys to Mentone all the way from Chambery by rail if I chose; but I prefer to walk down, and keep the extra money for my dot. It will make me a good one."
I am not sure that, before disentangling a huge bottle-fly from Fanny's long lashes, she did not glance under her own at Joseph, when giving this information.
"Look here, Innocentina," I said beguilingly, "tell me which way, and how, your young Monsieur has gone, and I will double that dot of yours."
"Not if you would quadruple it, Monsieur. I promised my master to say nothing."
"Couldn't you get absolution for breaking a promise?"
"No, Monsieur. I am not that kind of Catholic. It is only heretics who break their promises, and take money for it—like Judas Iscariot."
Joseph did not charge at this red rag, but looked so utterly depressed that Innocentina's eyes relented.
"Very well," I said. "You deserve praise for your loyalty. I ought not to have tried to corrupt it. But, you know, I shall find out in the town, or at the railway station."
Innocentina smiled. "I do not think so, Monsieur."
"We shall see," I retorted. "Joseph, where is the railway station?"
Joseph pointed, accompanying his gesture with directions. Then he offered to be my guide, but I refused his services and left him with Innocentina, having bidden him call at my room in the hotel for instructions later.
But the prophecy of Innocentina the Seeress was fulfilled. I could learn nothing of the Boy or his movements, at the gare of Chambery. Several trains had gone out, bound for several destinations in different directions, during the past three hours, and no one answering the description I gave of the Boy had been seen to leave.
Sadder, but no wiser, I returned to the Hotel de France, and asked if a youth of seventeen, "with large blue eyes, chestnut hair which curled, a complexion tanned brown, a panama hat, and a suit of navy-blue serge knickerbockers," had lunched there.
The answer was no. Such a yoking gentleman had not come to the hotel, nor had he been noticed in the town, either with or without a young woman and a couple of donkeys.
I had no more than finished my questionings and gone up to my room, when Joseph arrived—a wistful, expectant Joseph, with a deep light of excitement burning in his eyes.
"Any news?" I asked.
"No, Monsieur, except that in an hour Innocentina starts to walk on to Les Echelles with her anes."
"She is energetic."
"The girl knows not what is the fatigue. Besides, each day less on the road means so many more francs added to the dot."
"Innocentina seems very keen upon increasing that dot. Has she anyone in view to share it with her?"
"She has not confided that to me, Monsieur."
"I suppose he would have to be a good Catholic?"
"Of that I am not so sure. I do not think she would object to a good Protestant, if he would allow the children to be brought up in her faith."
"The lady is brave. She takes time by the forelock."
"It is the wise way, Monsieur."
"Well, whoever he may be, I am sure you do not envy the future mari, dot or no dot. Your opinion of Innocentina——"
"Ah, it is changed, Monsieur, completely changed, I confess."
"Then, after all, it is Innocentina who has converted you."
Joseph bent his head to hide a flush. "Perhaps, Monsieur, if you put it in that way. Yet it was not of myself nor of Innocentina I came to talk, but of the plans of Monsieur."
"Plans? I've no plans," I answered dejectedly.
"Will Monsieur wish to proceed to-morrow morning as usual?"
"Proceed where?" I gloomily capped his question with another.
"On the way south, towards the Riviera, is it not? If we made an early start, it might be possible to go by the route of la Grande Chartreuse, and reach the monastery late in the afternoon. If Monsieur wished to sleep there, travellers are accommodated at the Sister House, which has been turned into an hotellerie since the expulsion of the Order."
I reflected a moment before replying. On the face of it, it appeared like weakness to change my plans simply because I had been deserted by a comrade whose very existence had been unknown to me when first I made them. Yet, on the other hand, I had grown so used to his companionship now, that the thought of continuing my journey without him was distasteful. With the Little Pal, no day had ever seemed too long, no misadventure but had had its spice. Lacking the Little Pal, the vista of day after day spent in covering the country at the rate of three miles an hour loomed before me monotonous as the treadmill. My gorge rose against it. I could not go on as I had begun. Why punish myself by a diet of salt when the savour had gone?
"Joseph," I said at last, "the disappearance of the young Monsieur has been a blow to me, I admit. It has destroyed my appetite for sightseeing, for the moment, at all events. I can't rearrange my plans instantly; but this I have determined. I'll end my walking-tour here. What to do afterwards I will make up my mind in good time, but meanwhile, I won't keep you dancing attendance upon me. You will be anxious to get back home——"
"Monsieur, I have no home." There was despair in Joseph's tone, and suddenly the keen point of truth pierced the armour of my selfishness. Poor Joseph, facing exile—from Innocentina—and keeping his countenance politely, while I densely discoursed of "blows"! Being a muleteer "farmed out" by a master, he was at the mercy of Fate, and temporarily I represented Fate. He could not journey on southwards, whither his heart was wandering, unless I bade him go. This fine fellow, this old soldier, was as much at my orders as if I had been a king.
"If you aren't in a hurry to get back to Martigny, Joseph," said I, changing my tone, "I'll tell you what you can do for me. You may take some of my luggage down to the Riviera. I'm expecting a portmanteau to arrive here by rail to-night or to-morrow morning, with plenty of clothing in it. But there are those hold-alls which Finois has carried for so long. I can't travel about with them in railway carriages; at that I draw the line; yet if I sent them by grande vitesse, their contents would be injured or stolen. Take them down to Monte Carlo for me. I shall go there sooner or later, to meet some friends of mine who are motoring, and I shall stop at the Royal."
Joseph's face would have put radium to shame, with the light it generated.
"Monsieur is not joking? He is in earnest?" the poor fellow stammered.
"Most certainly. And when we meet on the Riviera, we will talk over a scheme for your future of which I've been thinking. If you would like to buy Finois of your patron, and two or three other animals only less admirable than he, setting up in business for yourself, I think I know a man who might advance you the money."
Had there been a little more of the French, or a little less of the Swiss, in honest Joseph's blood, I think that he would have fallen on his knees and rained kisses on my mild-stained boots. The Swiss upped the balance, luckily for us both, and kept him erect; but there was a suspicious glitter in his deep eyes, and a sudden pinkness of his respectable brown nose, which gave to his "Oh, Monsieur!" more meaning than a volume of protestations.
His hand came out impulsively, then flew back humbly to his side, but I put out mine and grasped it.
"Monsieur, I would die for you," he said.
"I would prefer," I returned, "that you should live—for Innocentina."
The Strange Mushroom
"Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face?" —SHAKESPEARE.
When Joseph had gone, with his pockets and his heart both full to bursting, I felt much like the captain of a small fishing vessel, wrecked in strange seas, who has seen his comrades depart on rafts, while he stayed on board his sinking ship alone with three biscuits and a gill of water. There was also a certain resemblance between me and a well-meaning plant which has been pulled up by its roots just as it had begun to grow nicely, and then stuck into the earth again, upside down, to do the best it can.
I was not quite sure yet which was up or down, and which way I had better grow, if at all. There was, however, an attraction in a southerly direction: letters were to be forwarded to me at Grenoble, and there would probably be one from Jack or Molly Winston, saying when and where they might be expected to come upon the scene with Mercedes. Finding me stranded, they would doubtless take pity upon my forlornness, and offer me a lift in their car, down to the Riviera. And to the Riviera I still felt strongly impelled to go, though I had no longer the Contessa for an excuse. She had been engaged, in my little drama, for the part of "leading juvenile," with the privilege of understudying the heroine. But she had not shown an aptitude for either role, and having stepped down to that of first walking lady, she had minced off my stage altogether. Now the cast was filled up without her, though strangely filled, since after the first act there had been no leading lady at all. Nevertheless, having arranged a scene at Monte Carlo I could not persuade myself to give it up, though it would not be played, in any event, at the Contessa's villa.
The Boy had vanished, and the sole word he had left was that I had better not count upon seeing him again. But the more I thought of it, the less necessity I saw for taking him at that word. He perhaps flattered himself that he had picked up all clues and carried them off with him in the wonderful bag. But he had purposefully hinted that "something might happen at Monte Carlo," and I hoped the something might mean that, after all, the Boy would materialise with his sister at the Hotel de Paris on the night after our arrival. In any case, if the Princess were going to Monte Carlo, there would the Fairy Prince be also, and I did not see why I should not be there too, whether Molly and Jack tooled me down in their motor or not.
Fifteen minutes after Joseph had gone from my life to mingle his lot with Innocentina's, I had my own plans definitely mapped out. I would stop in Chambery overnight, to wait for the portmanteau with which I had kept up a speaking acquaintance in the larger centres of civilisation, during the tour, and next day I would go on to Grenoble by train, there to pick up letters.
The luggage duly arrived in the evening, so that there was no bar to the carrying out of my design; and, accordingly, after my coffee on the following morning, I conscientiously went out to see more of the town before taking the eleven-o'clock train.
It was only ten, and as my arrangements were all made, I had time for strolling—too much to suit my mood. The murmur of an automobile preparing to take flight attracted me from a distance, for it seemed that the voice had the cadence of a car I knew. I hastened my steps, turned a corner, and there, in front of the Hotel de France's rival, stood a fine motor, panting, quivering in eagerness to dart away.
It was a Mercedes, and if it were not Molly Winston's wedding-present Mercedes, it was that Mercedes' twin. But there was a strange mushroom in it.
I would have known Molly's mushroom among a thousand. It was small, round, compact, and of a dark cream colour. This mushroom was flatter, wider, more expansive, with an exceedingly slender stem; and in tint it was of a pale silvery grey. It grew up straight and slim in the tonneau of the car, all alone, unaccompanied by any similar growths, or any guardian goblins; and several servants of the hotel were grouped about, waiting to see it off.
I waited, too, sniffing adventure with the scent of petrol, and interested in the resemblance to that good Dragon with which I had been friends; but I was about to turn away at last when a form which had evidently been squatting behind the car on the other side, rose to its feet. It was that of Gotteland, and had he been a long-lost uncle from Australia with his pockets crammed with wills in my favour, I could not have been more delighted to see him.
As I rushed forward to claim him as my own, Molly and Jack came out of the hotel.
"Monty!" Jack cried, with a sincerity of joy which warmed my heart. As for his wife, she cried not at all, but merely gasped.
"What luck for me!" I exclaimed, shaking both Molly's hands so hard that it was fortunate (as she remarked afterwards) that she had on "only her rainy-day rings." "I did hope to hear of you at Grenoble, but scarcely dared think of actually meeting you, even there. In two minutes more I should have been on the way to catch my train."
"Here's your train, old man," said Jack, indicating the throbbing automobile.
"My one true love, Mercedes," I remarked, looking fondly at the car.
"Sh!" whispered Molly, with an odd little sound which was like a giggle strangled at birth. "She's there."
"Who?" I started, bewildered.
"I know; the darling! I long to have my hands on her again."
"Oh, Lord Lane, do be careful! You don't understand. I mean the real Mercedes. The girl who gave me the car. She's sitting there. She'll hear you."
"It's all right," said Jack. "The motor's making such a row, she wouldn't catch the words."
"She joined us h—lately," explained Molly hurriedly.
"I remember now. You used to talk rather a lot about her and want us to meet."
"Well, you have your wish now, dearie," Jack chimed in. "You can introduce them with your own fair hand."
"Wait—wait." Molly whispered piteously, as Jack would have taken a step forward, and pulled me with him, a peculiarly dare-devil look in his handsome eyes. "For goodness' sake, Jack!"
Her voice restrained him, and again we were in conclave. "You see, Lord Lane, it's rather awkward. We want you to go on with us, immensely, but——"
"You're awfully good," I hastily cut in. "But I quite see, and I couldn't think of——"
"Oh, please, that isn't what I meant. Now, will you and Jack both be quite quiet, like angels, and let me talk for a while, till I make everything clear to everybody, about everybody else. Don't grin. I know I'm not beginning well, but the beginning's the difficult part. We wrote to you, Lord Lane, to Grenoble, saying we would be arriving about as soon as you got the letter. We didn't know whether we could tear you away from your mule or not; but anyhow, we should have seen each other and got each other's news. Then this friend of mine joined us unexpectedly; at least, we thought we might meet her, but we weren't at all sure she would want to travel with us. However, here she is, and she's a perfect dear; and next to Jack and Dad I love her better than anybody else in the world. Besides, she gave me the car; and you know I told you how ill she had been, and how she was travelling for her health. Altogether we have to consider her before anyone; and I want to know, Lord Lane, if you'll think me a regular little beast if I speak to her first, before we arrange anything?"
I opened my lips to answer with a complimentary protest, but before I could frame a word, she had rushed to the two Mercedes, her mushroom hanging limp in her hand, and had entered into a low-voiced conversation with the human namesake.
"Look here, Jack; I wouldn't put you out for the world," I said. "As for tearing myself from the mule, that surgical operation has already been performed, and I was going on to Monte Carlo——"
"That's our goal," cut in Jack. "Molly maligned the place of old days. Now I want her to do it justice. You and I will show her Monte at its best."
"Yes, but I'll go down by rail, and meet you there."
"You'll do nothing of the kind. Molly's friend is one of the most charming girls alive, but she has passed through a great trouble, followed by a severe illness. She came to us in some distress of mind, and we are bound, as Molly says, to consider her, as she may not think herself equal to intercourse with strangers. However, all that's necessary is to explain you to her, as I am now explaining her to you, and the thing settles itself. There can be no question of your not going on with us. You and Mercedes won't interfere with each other in the least, because, you see, now that you've turned up, the thing is to get down quietly, and—and enjoy ourselves at the journey's end. We'll make a rush of it. In any case, Molly would have sat in the tonneau with her friend, and the only difference you will make in our arrangements is that I shall have you as a companion in front instead of Gotteland."
At this moment our fair emissary returned from the enemy's camp.
"Mercedes says that not for anything would she cheat us out of your company," announced Molly. "Only she hopes you won't think her rude and horrid if she doesn't talk. There's her message; but I really think, Lord Lane, that the best thing is to take no notice of the poor child. She is very nervous and upset still, but I hope in a few days she will be herself again. I won't even introduce you to her. She and I will sit in the tonneau, as quiet as two kittens, while you and Jack in front can talk over all your adventures since you met, and forget our existence. We shan't be so very long on the way, shall we, Jack?"
I began another "but," which was scornfully disregarded by both Jack and Molly. I might as well consent now, as later, they said, since they would simply refuse to leave Chambery without me, and the longer I took to see reason, the more essence would the motor be wasting.
Thus adjured, I allowed myself to be hustled off to my hotel by Jack, who insisted on accompanying me lest I should turn traitor on the way. In ten minutes Gotteland would drive the car to the door of the France, and I was expected to be ready by that time. My packing had been done before I went out, by the united efforts of a valet de chambre and myself; but now all had to be undone again; my motoring coat (unused for weeks and aged in appearance by as many years) dragged up from the lowest stratum with my goblin-goggles, and a few small things dashed into a weird travelling bag which a confused porter rushed out to buy at a neighbouring shop. While I settled the hotel bill, Jack arranged to have my portmanteau expressed to Grenoble, and by a scramble our tasks were finished when the voice of the car called us to the door.
The whole incident had happened so quickly, that I had no time to realise the change in my circumstances, when, "sole, like a falling star," the motor "shot through the pillared town" with me on board.
There had been a time when I shrank from the name of the car's giver, believing that Molly thrust it too obviously into notice. When "that dear girl Mercedes" had threatened to enter our conversations I had often kept her out by force; but now it seemed that I, not she, was the intruder, and in a far more material way. This was, perhaps, poetical justice, but I did not grudge it, since it was evident that Molly no longer cherished the intention of dangling her friend the heiress before me like a brilliant fly over the nose of an impecunious trout. On the contrary, she warned me off the premises. We were to hurry down to Monte Carlo as quickly as possible, that the situation might not be overstrained. Mercedes in the tonneau, I in the front seat, were to live and let live during the rapid journey, and this was well.
I dimly remembered that, in the first days of our journey in search of a mule, Molly had vaunted her friend's beauty, but the silver-grey mushroom prevented me from verifying or disproving this statement. The small, triangular talc window was greyly-opaque, or else there was a grey veil underneath; my one glance had not told me which, and I neither dared nor desired to steal another.
Jack supplied the blanks in our somewhat broken correspondence, by skimming over the details of their doings; how they had spent most of their time since our parting in Switzerland; how they had arrived at Aix-les-Bains the very morning we left for Mont Revard; and how they had motored to Chambery yesterday afternoon.
"Think of my being in the same town with you for more than twelve hours, and not knowing it!" I exclaimed. "To borrow an expression of Mrs. Winston's, I was jolly 'low in my mind' last night, and the very thought that you two were close by would have been cheering."
I had not dared address myself to Molly in the other camp, but evidently all communication between the lines was not to be broken off. The wind must have carried my words to her ear, for she bent forward, leaning her arm on the back of our seat.
"Did you say you were miserable last night?" she inquired with flattering eagerness.
"Yes. Awfully miserable."
"Poor Lord Lane! I haven't understood yet exactly why you suddenly gave up your walking tour, and got the idea of going on by rail. I thought from your letters you were having such a good time, that we could hardly bribe you to desert—your party and come with us, even at Grenoble."
"My party deserted me, and that was the end of my 'good time,'" I replied, charmed with Molly's conception of the role of a "quiet kitten" whose existence was to be forgotten. As if any man could ever forget hers!
"What, your nice Joseph and his Finois?" she inquired.
"When I speak of 'my party' I refer particularly to the boy I wrote you about," I returned, far from averse to being drawn out on the subject of my troubles, though I had resolved, were I not intimately questioned, to let them prey upon my damask cheek.
"Oh, yes, that wonderful American boy. Did he keep right on being wonderful all the time, or did he turn out disappointing in the end?"
"Disappointing!" I echoed. "No; rather the other way round. He was always surprising me with new qualities. I never saw anyone like him."
"Ah, perhaps that's because you never knew other American boys. I dare say if I'd met him I shouldn't have found him so remarkable."
"Yes, you would," I protested. "There could be no two opinions about it."
"Is he good-looking?"
"Extraordinarily. Such eyes as his are wasted on a boy—or would be on any other boy. If he'd been a girl, he would have been one for a man to fall head over ears in love with."
"You're enthusiastic! Hasn't he got any sisters?"
"He has one, who is supposed to be like him. I was promised—or partly promised—to meet her in Monte Carlo, at the end of our journey, where the Boy expected her to join him."
"Oh, has he been called away by her?"
"I don't think so."
"I fancied that might have been why he left you."
"I don't know what his reason was, but I have faith enough in the little chap to be sure it was a good one."
"Sure you didn't bore each other?"
"If you had ever seen that boy, you'd know that the word 'bore' would perish in his presence like a microbe in hot water. As for me—I don't believe I bored him. He did say once that we would part when we came to the 'turnstile,' meaning the point of mutual boredom, but I can't believe the turnstile was in his sight. I think that his resolution to go was sudden and unexpected."
"He must have been an interesting boy, and you ought to be grateful to Fate for sending him your way because apparently he gave you no time for brooding on the past."
"The past? Oh, by Jove, I couldn't think what you meant for a second. You have a right to say 'I told you so,' Mrs. Winston. There was nothing in all that, you know, except a little wounded vanity; and you know, you are really the Fate I have to thank for finding it out so soon."
"What do you mean?" exclaimed Molly, almost as if she were frightened. "I did nothing at all. I——"
"You took me away with you and Jack. The rest followed."
"Oh, that. I didn't understand. Well, as we shall get you down to Monte Carlo soon, you will meet your boy again."
"I wish I could be sure."
"I thought you said it was an engagement."
"Only conditional. Besides, had we walked, we should have been weeks on the way. I wonder you don't laugh in my face, Mrs. Winston, but you'd understand if you could have met the Boy."
"I supposed Jack was your best friend," complained Molly.
"So he is. But this is different. I'm going to look for the Boy at Monte Carlo. What I'm hoping is, that after all he may keep the half-engagement he made to meet me there."
"On the night after my arrival for a dinner at the Hotel de Paris, to be given in honour of him and his sister."
"You think he will?"
"It's worth going on the chance."
"You are the right kind of friend," said Molly, "and you deserve to be rewarded, doesn't he, Jack?"
"Yes," Jack flung over his shoulder as he drove; "and I shall swear a vendetta against everybody concerned, if he isn't."
This did not strike me as a particularly brilliant remark, but Molly seemed to find it witty, for she laughed merrily, with a certain impish ring in her glee, reminiscent of the Little Pal in some moods. Evidently she had exhausted her long list of questions, for, laughing still, she twisted her slim body half round in the tonneau, turning a shoulder upon us. I took this as a signal that Mercedes was now to have her share of attention, and tactfully bestowed mine on Jack.
The World without the Boy
"A . . . somewhat headlong carriage." —R.L. STEVENSON.
Though I had given Molly eyes and ears during her long catechism, I had been vaguely aware, nevertheless, that on leaving the Hotel de France we had crossed a bridge over the almost dry and pebbly bed of the insignificant Leysse; that we had passed the stately elephants, and a robust marble lady typifying France in the act of receiving on her breast a slender Savoie; that we had caught a last glimpse of the chateau, and were spinning along a well-kept road, cheek by jowl with the railway to Lyons.
From a high mountain on our left, the silver Cascade de Coux fell vertically, like a white horse's tail; and I smiled to see, as we flashed by, a little house which honoured a valiant foe against whom I had fought, with the name of the Cafe de Boers.
Up and up mounted our road, cresting green billows of rolling mountain land. We were running towards the boundary of Savoie, into Dauphine, a country which I had never seen. The Boy and I had talked of entering it together and visiting its Seven Marvels, the very possession of which made it seem in our eyes alluringly mediaeval. Had he been my companion still, we would have been travelling some hidden side-path, where doubtless Joseph and Innocentina, chaperoned by les animaux, were happily straying at this moment. I could almost hear the donkey-girl's mechanically constant, warning cry, "Fanny-anny, Fanny-anny! Souris-ouris!" like a low undertone of accompaniment to the thrum of the motor.
The fancied sound smote me with homesickness, and to coax my mind from the disappointment which still rankled, I asked Jack when he would let me try my hand at driving.
"Not here," said he with a smile, which was instantly explained by an abrupt plunge from the top of a long hill down into a cutting between lichen-scaled rocks, tracing with our "pneus" as we went a series of giddy zig-zags. We had hardly twisted one way when lo! the time had come to twist in the opposite direction, and nowhere had we a radius of more than twenty yards in which to perform our tricks.
"I couldn't have done that as well as you did it, I confess," said I, with becoming modesty.
"It's easy enough when you've got the knack," replied the "Lightning Conductor."
"So, no doubt, is reeling, writhing, and fainting in coils. Motoring down these serpentine hills is like hurling yourself into space, and trusting to Providence."
"So is all of life," said Jack. "A timid man might say the same of getting out of bed in the morning."
"Even I can do the trick," cut in Molly, who was taking a temporary interest in our affairs again. "At least, I can this year, now that chickens are better than they used to be."
"They are looking nice and fat this summer" I judicially remarked.
"I don't mean that," explained Molly. "But they are more sensible. Last year, before Jack and I were married, chickens were so bad that I used to dream of nothing else in my sleep. I had chicken nightmares. The absurd creatures never would realise when they were well off, but even in the midst of laying a most important egg on one side of the road, our automobile had only to come whizzing along to convince them that salvation depended on getting across to the other. This year they seem to have formed a sort of Chicken Club, a league of defence against motors, and to have started a propaganda."
My imagination tricked me, or this theory of Molly's evoked a faint sound of stifled mirth in the heart of the mysterious mushroom. In haste I turned away, lest I should be suspected of regarding it, and Jack began to pump my memory mercilessly for what it might retain of his driving lessons. Luckily, I had forgotten nothing, and I was able to demonstrate my knowledge by pointing to the various parts of the machine with each glib reference I made.
By-and-bye, we came to a place where a grotto was "much recommended"; but swallows, southward bound, do not stop in their flight for grottos. We darted by, thundered through the humming darkness of Napoleon's tunnel, and flashed out into a startling landscape, as sensational as the country of the "Delectable Mountains" in "Pilgrim's Progress." The cup-like valley was ringed in by mountains of astonishing shapes; it was nature posing for a picture by John Martin. In the fields were dotted characteristic Dauphine houses, little elfin things with overhanging roofs like caps tied under their chins.
Soon, we raced into the main street of tiny Les Echelles, whence, in the good old days, fair Princess Beatrice of Savoie went away to wed with the famed Raymond of Provence. We whisked through the village, and down the valley to St. Laurens du Pont, and the entrance to that great rift between mountains which leads to the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse.
As we plunged into the narrow jaws of the superb ravine, a wave of regret for the Boy swept over me. He and I had talked of this day—the day we should see the deserted monastery hidden among its mountains; now it had come, and we were parted.
The society of Jack and Molly and the motor car could make up for many things, but it could not stifle longings for the Little Pal. Besides, magnificent as was Mercedes (the Dragon, not the Mushroom) I felt that Finois and Fanny-anny would have been more in keeping with the place. I was too dispirited to care whether or no my eyes were filled with dust; therefore I had not goggled myself, and I think that Jack must have gathered something of my thoughts from my long face.
"How would you like to get out and walk here, like pilgrims of old?" he asked. "It will be too much for the girls, but Gotteland will drive them up slowly, not to be too far in advance. American girls, you'll find, if you ever make a study of one or more of them, can do everything in the world except—walk. There they have to bow to English girls."
"That's because we've got smaller feet," retorted Molly. "Where an English girl can walk ten miles we can do only five, but it's quite enough. And we have such imaginations that we can sit in this automobile and fancy ourselves princesses on ambling palfreys."
It was close to the deserted distillery of the famous liqueur that we parted company, the car, piled with our discarded great-coats, forging ahead up the historic path. The little tramway that used to carry the cases of liqueur to the station at Fourvoirie was nearly obliterated by new-grown grass; the vast buildings stood empty. Never again would the mellow Chartreuse verte and Chartreuse jaune he fragrantly distilled behind the high grey walls, for the makers were banished and scattered far abroad.
We lingered for a moment at the narrow entrance to Le Desert, where the rushing river Guiers foams through the throttled gorge, giving barely room for the road scored along the lace of the cliff. It was like a doorway to the lost domain of the monks, and Jack and I agreed that St. Bruno was a man of genius to find such a retreat. A retreat it was literally. St. Bernard had taken his followers to a place where, suffering great hardships, they could best devote their lives to succouring others; but St. Bruno's theory had evidently been that holy men can do more good to their kind by prayer in peaceful sanctuaries than by offering more material aid.
Here,—at the doorway of St. Bruno's long corridor,—the ravine, the old forge, the single-arched bridge flung high across the deep bed of the roaring torrent, had all grouped themselves as if after a consultation upon artistic effect. Once, there had been an actual gate, built alike for defence and for limitation, but there were no traces of it left for the eye of the amateur.
We passed into the defile, and the motor car was out of sight long ago. Higher and higher the brown road climbed. The mountains towered close and tall. Great pillared palaces of rock loomed against the sky like castles in the air, incalculably far above the green heads and sloping shoulders of the nearer mountain slopes.
I had thought that green was never so green as in the Valley of Aosta, but here in St. Bruno's corridor there was a new richness of emerald in the green carpet and wall hangings, such as I had not yet known. It was green stamped with living gold, in delicate fleur-de-lis patterns where the sun wove bright threads; and high above was the ceiling of lapis lazuli, in pure unclouded blue.
We heard no sound save the voices of unseen woodcutters crying to each other from mountain slope to mountain slope, the resonant ring of their axes, striking out wild, echoing notes with a fleeting clang of steel on pine, and now and again the sudden thunder-crash of a falling tree, like the roar of a distant avalanche.
By-and-bye we came to the aerial bridge which spans the Guiers Mort, slender and graceful as the arch of a rainbow, and as we gazed down at the far, white water hurling itself in sheets of foam past the detaining rocks, the sharp toot of a horn broke discordantly into the deep-toned music. A motor car sprang round an abrupt curve and flashed by, but not so quickly that I did not recognise among the six occupants the two young Americans of Mont Revard. They passed me as unseeingly as they did the scenery: for they were talking as fast to two pretty girls opposite them in the tonneau, as if the girls had not been talking equally fast to them at the same time. I bore the pair a grudge, and the sight of them brought back the consciousness of my injury.
St. Bruno, fortunate in many ways, was a lucky saint to have so beautiful a bridge named after him. And as we climbed the brown road—moist with tears wept by the mountains for the banished monks—it seemed to us that the scenery was always leading up to him, as a preface leads up to the first chapter of a book. We went through tunnels as a thread goes through the eye of a needle; we wound round intricate turns of the road; we came upon pinnacle rocks; and then, at last, when we least expected the climax of our journey, we dropped into a great green basin, rimmed with soaring crags. In the midst stood an enormous building, a vast conglomeration of pointed, dove-grey roofs and dun-coloured walls, a city of slate and stone spread over acres of ground and seeming a part of the impressive yet strangely peaceful wilderness.
Looking at the vast structure, I was ready to believe that St. Bruno had waved his staff in the shadow of a rough-hewn mountain, saying: "Let there be a monastery," and suddenly, there was a monastery; but our motor, quivering with nervous energy before a door in the high wall, snatched me back to practicalities.
Molly, leaning quietly back in the tonneau beside the Perpetual Mushroom, saw us coming from afar off, and waved a hand of absurd American smallness. By the time we were within speaking distance, she was out of the car and coming toward us.
"We were so hungry, that we lunched while we waited," she explained, "so now you and Jack can go to the hotellerie and have something quickly. We'll walk in the woods until you come back, and then, as Mercedes doesn't seem to mind, we'll all go into the monastery together."
It was not until the door of the Grande Chartreuse had opened to receive us, and closed again behind our backs, shutting us into a large empty quadrangle, that the Spirit of the place took us by the hand.
Over the steep grey roofs (pointed like monkish hands with finger-tips joined in prayer) we gazed up at mountain peaks, grey and green, and pointing also to a heaven which seemed strangely near.
The spell of the vast, the stupendous silence fell upon us. Somehow, Molly drifted from me to Jack as we walked noiselessly on, led by a silent guide, as if she craved the warm comfort of a loved presence, and for a few brief moments the veiled Mercedes paced step for step beside me. But we did not speak to each other.
What a tragic, tremendous silence it was! Yes, I wanted the Boy. I should have been glad of the touch of his little shoulder. Thinking of him thus, by some accident the sleeve of Mercedes's coat brushed against mine. Still, not a word from either of us. I did not even say, "I beg your pardon," for that would have been to obtrude my voice upon the thousand voices of the Silence; dead voices, living voices; voices of passionate protest, voices of heartbreaking homesickness, of aching grief and longing, never to be assuaged. Poor monks—poor banished men who had loved their home, and belonged to it, as the clasping tendrils of old, old ivy belong to the oak.
How dared we come here into this place from which they had been driven, we aliens? I had not known it would grip me so by the throat. How full the emptiness was!—as full to my mind as the air is of motes when a bar of sunshine reveals them.
It was the Palace of Sleep, lost in the mountain forests, but here there was no hope coming with the springing footsteps of a blithe young prince. The sleepers in this palace could not be waked by a wish, or a magic kiss, for they were ghosts, ghosts everywhere—in the great kitchen, with all its huge polished utensils ready for the meal which would never be cooked, and its neat plain dishes on shelved trays, waiting to be carried to the grilles of the solitaires; in the Brothers' refectory where the egg-cups were ranged on long, narrow tables, for the meal never to be eaten, where the chair of the Reader was waiting to receive him; in the Fathers' refectory next door; in the dusky corridors, their ends lost in shadow, where only the sad echoes and the running water of the unseen spring were awake; in the chapels; in the cemetery with its old carved stones and humbler wooden crosses; and most of all in the wonderful cells (which were not cells, but mansions), and in their high-walled gardens, the most private of all imaginable spots on earth.
Wandering on and on, alone now, I felt myself the saddest man in a twilight world. Why, I could not have put into words. Had the brotherhood still peopled the monastery, I should have yearned to join them, partly because I was sad, and partly because the so-called cells were the most charming dwelling-places I had seen. Each comprised a two-storied house in miniature, and each had its garden, shut irrevocably away from sight or sound of any other. Into one of these solitary abodes I went alone, and closed the door upon myself and the ghosts. In fancy I was one of the order, in retreat for a week, my only means of communication with the outer world of the monastery (save for midnight prayers in the dim chapel) a little grille. There was my workshop, where I carved wood; there the narrow staircase leading steeply up to my wainscoted bedroom, my study, and my oratory, with windows looking down into the leafy square of garden, planted by my own hands. Standing at one of those windows, I knew the anguish of parting and loss which had torn the heart of the last occupant, before he walked out of the monastery between double lines of Chasseurs Alpins.
The Fairy Prince's Ring
"Rub the ring, and the Genius will appear." —Arabian Nights.
Down, down a winding and beautiful road we plunged, on leaving the Grande Chartreuse, while the afternoon sunlight was still golden. The monastery sank out of our sight as we went, as the moon sinks into the sea, and was gone for us as if it were on the other side of the world. Ah, but a sweet, warm world, and I was glad after all that I was not a monk in carved oak cells and walled gardens, but a free young man who could vibrate between the South Pole and the Albany.
Molly said that the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse was like a body without a soul; and in another breath she was asking Jack, quite seriously, whether she could buy one of the cells from the French Government, all complete, to "express" as a present to her father in New York.
We flew, our motor humming like a bee, through exquisite forests clothing the sides of a narrow ravine, where hidden streams made music. Then in a twinkling we slipped out from the secret recesses of scented woods, into a village almost too beautiful to accept as reality, in a practical mood. There it lay, like a little heap of pearls tossed down from the lap of one mountain at the feet of another—and we were at St. Pierre de Chartreuse.
The tiny gem of beauty had caught the glory of Switzerland, and the soft, fairy charm of Dauphine. Its guardian mountain was a miniature Matterhorn of indescribable grace and airy stateliness; its lesser attendants formed a group of peaks, grey and green and rose. As if enough gifts had not yet been bestowed upon the little place at its christening, a playground of forest land, rolling up over grassy slopes, had been given, with a neighbouring river, swift and clear, to sing it a lullaby.
I had the impulse to clap my hands at St. Pierre de Chartreuse, as at some "setting" excellently designed and carried out by the most celebrated of scene painters. It was a place in which to stop a month, finding a new walk for each new day; but one does not discover walks in a motor car. One sweeps over the country, sounding notes of triumph. We glanced at St. Pierre de Chartreuse and sped on towards Grenoble, through a landscape markedly different from that of Savoie.
In Savoie everything is done lavishly, on a large scale. The eye roams over spaces of noble amplitude, expressing strength in repose.
Dauphine is livelier and daintier; more lovable, too. Fairies or brownies (since no mortals do it) keep the whole country like a vast private park. In crossing from Savoie into Dauphine one seemed to hear the allegro movement after listening to the andante.
With each twist of our road the prospect changed. The mountains grew, soared more abruptly, and the youthful-looking landscape smiled at their strange shapes. As for the Cham Chaude, which had been the Matterhorn at St. Pierre de Chartreuse, it now disguised itself for some new part at every turn. Such lightning changes must have been fatiguing, even for so extraordinarily versatile and clever a mountain, for within fifteen minutes after playing it was the Matterhorn, it was a giant, tonsured monk; a Greek soldier in a helmet; a Dutch cheese; a hen, and a camel.
When Dragon Mercedes had rushed us up the great Col, and whirled round a corner, suddenly a battalion of magnificent white warrior-mountains sprang at us from an ambush of invisibility. Then, no sooner had they struck awe to our hearts with their warlike majesty, than, repentant, they turned into lovely white ladies, bidding us welcome to the rich, ripe figs and purple grapes which they held in their generous laps. I thought of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary with her fair face, her candid sky-blue eyes, her high, noble bearing, and her white dress caught up, heaped with the roses into which her loaves had been transformed. The tallest, purest white mountain of all I chose for sweet Elizabeth, and that was none other than far Mont Blanc, floating magically in pure blue ether, like a gleaming pearl.
Flying down the perfect road towards the plain where two rivers met, loved, and wedded, the valley which was the white mountain's lap blended vague, soft greens and blues and purples, hinting of grapes and figs clustering under leaves. Here and there a vine had been nipped by early frosts and flung its crimson wreaths, like diadems of rubies, in a red arch across distant billows of mountain snows.
Autumn was in the air, and though the grass and most of the trees kept all their richness of summer greenery, a faint, pungent fragrance of dying leaves and the smoke of bonfires came to one's nostrils with the breeze. Mingled with the exciting scent of petrol, it was delicious.
At the confluence of the newly married Drac and Isere rose the domes and towers of stately old Grenoble, hoary with history; and never a town had a nobler setting. Swooping down in half-circles, as if our car had been a great bird of prey, we saw the valley veiled with a silver haze, which wrapped the city in mystery, while through this gleaming gauze the two rivers threaded like strings of turquoise beads.
"How the Boy would have loved this!" I found myself exclaiming over my shoulder to Molly. "He used often to talk of the great charm of descending from heights upon places, especially new-old places, which one has never seen before."
"Used he?" echoed Molly. "Why, that is rather odd. It is exactly what Mercedes has just been saying."
The Perpetual Mushroom moved impatiently. I fancied by the movement of her shoulder that she resented having her thoughts passed on to me. I hastened to turn away, sorry that I had reminded her inadvertently of my cumbersome existence; but I could not help wondering what she had been thinking of in the monastery when we had walked for full five moments side by side.
There was no disappointment when we had plunged into the silver haze, torn it apart, and entered the town over a dignified bridge. All around us spread the city old and new; above, on the hills, were numerous chateaux, a strange fort, and the queerest of ancient convents, like the cork castles I had seen in shop windows and coveted as a child. In the town there were statues, many statues—statues everywhere and in honour of everybody. Bayard was there, dying; and there was a delightfully human old fellow (humorous even in marble) who cleverly "lay low" till his worst enemy had finished an elaborately fortified castle, then promptly took it. Not a spacious modern street that had not at least one magnificent old palace, a facade of joyous Renaissance invention, or at least a crumbling mediaeval doorway of divine beauty; and nothing of romance was lost because Grenoble makes gloves for all the world.
We sailed out of the town along the straight five-mile road to the Pont de Claix, and now it was ho! for the Basses Alpes, over a road which might have been engineered for an emperor's motoring; past the quaint twin bridges spanning the stream side by side, which our guide-book taught us to recognise as one of the Seven Wonders (with capitals) of Dauphine. Then came a valley, almost theatrical in its romantic grace. One would not have believed in it for a moment if one had seen it first in a sketch. Even the railway, on which we soon looked down, was inspired to gymnastic feats, leaping across chasms on giddy viaducts, and twisting back upon itself in corkscrew tunnels. There were thrilling retrospective views away to the giant Alps we were leaving behind, but soon, nearer mountains crowded them out of sight. The country grew wild, with a strange grimness, like the face of a blind Fate; cultivation ceased in despair of success; and alike on the bare uplands and in the deep-scored valleys there were few signs of human life. Then, suddenly, in such a setting, we came upon the grandest of the Seven Marvels, the most wonderful lone rock in Europe, Mont Aiguille, more like an obelisk of incalculable immensity than a mountain. Once, it had been considered unscalable, and might have remained virgin until this century of hardy climbers, had not Charles the Eighth had a fancy to hear (not to see!) what was on top. Up went a few of his bravest satellites, hoisting themselves on to the aerial plateau by means of ropes and ladders, and bringing down wondrous tales of impossible chamois, savage, brilliant-coloured birds, and singular vegetation, which stories promptly went into all the geographies of the day and were believed until a more practical explorer named Jean Liotard climbed up, to please himself, in 1834.
We lost sight of this second Dauphine Marvel (the last one we were to see) just before running up the steep hill which led down again into the dark jaws of another mountain pass. It was the Col de la Croix Haute; and once past this gateway of the Alps the landscape changed slowly and indefinably, here and there suggesting that we were drawing nearer to the south. Though we were still encompassed on every side by mountains, they had lost their Alpine splendour of bearing; they stooped, or poked their chins.
The country was now all brown and green; and, surfeited with beauty, it seemed to me that here was nothing great. We sped through Aspres; through Serres, on its rocky promontory; and on through Laragne, whose ancient inn with the sign of a spider gave a name to the town. Pointed brown-green mountains were crowned with pointed green-brown ruins, hoary after much history-making; and at the pointed mountains' brown-green feet those avant-courriers of the South, almond trees, had sat down to rest on their way home.
Still we flew on; but at Sisteron Jack slowed down the motor. Here was something too curious for even spoiled sightseers to pass in a hurry.
The town struggled hardily up one side of a gorge, deep and steep, where the Durance has forced its patient way through a huge barrier of rock whose tilted strata correspond curiously on both sides of the stream. Driving down to the low bridge across the river, we gazed up at the town piled high above our heads, culminating in a fortress which, cut in a dark square out of the sky's turquoise, looked old as the beginning of the world.
Sisteron was brown, too, but not at all green; and beyond, for a time, the country was still in a grim brown study, though it ought to have remembered that it was now laughing Provence. It gave us crumbling chateaux, high-perched ancient rock villages without stint, and even a house (in the strangely named village of Malijai) where Napoleon had lain, early in the Hundred Days; but not a smile or a wild flower. Then, in a flash, its mood changed. The savage land had been tamed by some whispered word of Mother Nature, and grew youthfully pretty under our eyes. The poplars, in their autumn cloaks of gold, fringed the road with flame, and scattered largesse of red copper filings in our path; the dark mountains drew up over their bare shoulders scarfs of crimson, and the sun flung a million diamonds into the wide bed of the Durance.
Night was falling as we drove into the lazy-looking Provencal town of Digne, where all was green and sleepy, at peace with itself and the world at large. Even the beautiful Doric chateau d'eau was green with moss, and the water of its fountain laughed in sleep; the famous basilica showed grey through green lichen; its wonderful rose window had a green frame of ivy, and the strange, sculptured beasts guarding the door had saddles of green velvet mould.
We slept at Digne, and made an early morning start, the car plunging us almost from the first into scenery which only Gustave Dore could have imagined. Gnome villages and elfin castles clung to slim pinnacles of rock which seemed to swing, like blown branches, against the sky. Wild grey mountains bristled with rocky spines, and trails of scarlet foliage poured like streams of blood down their rough sides, completing the resemblance to fierce, wounded boars.
Our road was a road of steep gradients, leading us through gorges of a grandeur which would have been called appalling when the world was a little younger, and more in awe of savage Nature. If a midge could be provided with a proportionately tiny motor car, and sent coasting at full tilt down a greased corkscrew, from the handle to the sharp end of the screw, the effect would have been somewhat that of our Mercedes leaping down the steep defiles. We were vaguely conscious now and then that a river far below us clamoured for our bones; on one side we had a precipice, on the other a sheer face of towering cliff.
Gorges, glorious gorges! a plethora of gorges. No sooner were we out of one, and drawing breath in a valley of golden sunshine and silver river, but we were back in another majestic canon. Finest of all, perhaps, was the dark Clou de Rouaine; yet when we sprang out into daylight to throw ourselves into the village of Les Scaffarels, wonders did not cease. Now we were in the true hinterland of the gay, blue-and-gold Riviera, following the course of the Var, down to Nice, not many miles away. Wide and pebbly in its bed by the bright pleasure town, here it led us through a succession of more gorges, thundered us through rock tunnels, swept us over bridges, and at last tumbled us into sight of a marvel which must throw the whole seven of Dauphine out of focus. It was the town of Entrevaux, and to my shame I had never heard of it. Where the narrow valley opens into a broad one, and the green, swift flowing river sweeps in a sickle-curve round the base of a high rock, Entrevaux shoots far up into the sky. The river bathes its dark walls, protected by devices dear to the hearts of mediaeval Vaubans. Pepper-castor sentry-boxes jut out over the water; a great drawbridge with portcullis, triple gateway, and neat contrivances for pouring oil and molten lead upon besiegers, alone gives access to the town; while behind the old crowded houses a fortified stairway in the rock leads dizzily up to a stronghold clamped upon a towering peak—a peak like a black, giant wine-bottle, slender-necked, with the fort castle for the cork.
"If the Boy could see this with me!" I thought. And then, because this place was like a fairy place, I remembered the fairy prince's ring. Never had I followed his instructions; but I rubbed it now, and wished that the genie of the ring would give me back the Little Pal at Monte Carlo.
After Entrevaux, picturesque Puget-Theniers was an anticlimax; though other fairy towns peered down from high crags and sheer hillsides where they hung by wires caught in spider webs—and though we passed through other gorges of grim beauty, my thoughts had flown ahead of our swift car. I was glad when at last we came into sight of a fair white city lying on the blue curve of a bay and ringed with green hills, glad that our journey was all but ended; for the fair city was Nice.
The Day of Suspense
"Will you make me believe that I am not sent for . . . ? Go to, go to, thou art a foolish fellow!" —SHAKESPEARE.
From Nice to Monte Carlo over the Upper Corniche, was for us a spin of less than two hours; and after that most beautiful drive in the world, we slowed down before the green-shaded loggia of the Royal, early in the afternoon. The hotel was only just open for the season, and it was possible to have a choice of rooms. Jack selected a glass-fronted suite, with a view more beautiful than any other in the extraordinary little principality:
"Magic casements Opening on the foam of perilous seas In faery lands forlorn."
which were, respectively, the harbour, and the rock of Monaco (as old as Hercules), with its ancient towers dark against a sky of pearl.
I was given a peep into Molly's salon, which appeared to be a sort of crystal palace, with its two window-walls curtained by trailing roses; and Jack kept me for a moment at the door.
"I suppose we shall meet for dinner about eight, won't we, no matter what we may all choose to do meanwhile?" said he.
"Well—er—no," I mumbled, feeling a little foolish. "I have—er—a sort of engagement for to-night. I think I mentioned it before."
"What, to meet that missing Boy of yours?" asked Jack, in a chaffing tone, so tactlessly loud that it must have been distinctly audible to the ladies in the adjoining room, the door of which was open. "Isn't that rather a mad idea? You were vaguely engaged to meet your pal, I believe you said, on the night after your arrival, at the Hotel de Paris, for dinner. But considering the fact that, if you'd walked down as you then intended, instead of motoring, you would have been a fortnight on the way, isn't it fantastic to expect that he'll turn up?"
"Not quite as fantastic as you think," I retorted, remembering the terms of the Boy's letter, which had not been confided to Jack, in their exactness. "Anyhow, I'm going on the off chance."
"You apparently credit the youth with clairvoyance, my dear chap. Supposing he has come down here, how could he know that you'd arrived?"
"I wired him from Digne, telegraphing to the Poste Restante at Monte Carlo, where he would certainly think of enquiring, if he took much interest in my movements. In that message I made it very clear that I should expect him to stick to our bargain, and I have an impression that he will."
"He may. But, look here, my dear fellow,"—Jack now had the decency to lower his voice,—"have you no red blood in your veins? Mercedes—the real Mercedes—nearly restored to health and spirits by her run with us through splendid air and scenery, is to unveil her charms this evening at dinner. You have irreverently nicknamed her the Perpetual Mushroom. To-night, you will see—but you don't deserve to be told what you will see, if you haven't the curiosity to find out at the first opportunity for yourself."
"Second opportunities, like second thoughts, are better than first," said I. "I shall he delighted to take the second opportunity of meeting Miss Mercedes—by the way, what is her other name? You always seemed to take it for granted that I knew; but if it was ever mentioned in the summer, I've forgotten."
"You should be ashamed to admit that you could deliberately and stoically forget a charming young lady's name, and you don't deserve to have your memory jogged. You shall be told the heiress's name when you meet her, and not before."
"I must possess my soul in patience until to-morrow, then," I replied, "for to me one pal in the bush is worth twenty heiresses in the hand, and I am now going out to scour the said bush."
"Which means the Casino, no doubt."
"I shall stroll in, when I've got rid of the dust. The Rooms are the place to come across people."
"All right, gang your ain gait, my son, and I suppose I must wish you luck. Daresay we shall see each other before bedtime."
A few hours later, I was walking down through the gardens, on my way to the Casino. The young grass, sown last month, had already become green velvet, and the flowers were as fresh as if they had been created an hour ago. The air smelled of La France roses and orange blossoms, though I saw neither. Some pretty Austrian girls were walking about in muslin frocks and gauzy hats, though by this time, in England, women were putting on their fur boas in deference to autumn; and a few days ago I had been lost in a snowstorm on a middle-sized mountain of Savoie.
As I drew near to the big white Casino, strains of music came to me from the terrace, and thinking that the Boy might be there listening to the band, I went through the tunnel and came out on the beautiful flower-decked plateau overhanging the sea. Out of season though it was, a great many people were sitting there, drinking tea or coffee, and listening to "La Paloma."
The windows of the Casino were open, protected by awnings; birds were taking their last flight, before going to bed in some orange or lemon tree. The place was more charming than in the high season; but the face I looked for was not to be seen, and I deserted the Terrace for the Rooms.
I had not been to "Monte" since the Boer war; and when I had gone through the formalities at the Bureau, and entered the first salle, it struck me strangely to find everything exactly as I had left it years ago.
The same heavy stillness, emphasised by the continuous chink, chink of gold and silver, and broken only by the announcement of events at different tables: "Onze, noir, impair et manque";—"Rien ne va plus";—"Zero!"
The same onze; the same rien n'va plus; the same zero heralded in the same secretly joyous, outwardly apologetic tone, by the croupiers fortunate enough to produce it. The same croupiers too;—(or do croupiers develop a family likeness of face, of voice, of coat, as the years go chinking zeroly on?). The same players, or their doppelgaengers; the same pictured nymphs smiling on the ornate walls. But there was no Boy, no Boy's sister; and suddenly it occurred to me that I was foolish to expect him. He was too childlike in appearance to have obtained a ticket of admission to the gambling rooms.