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Philistia (Chapter13)

2006-08-28 23:23

  Chapter XIII. Ye Mountains of Gilboa!

  The old Englischer Hof at Pontresina looked decidedly sleepy and misty at five o'clock on an August morning, when two sturdy British holiday-seekers, in knickerbockers and regular Alpine climbing rig, sat drinking their parting cup of coffee in the salle-a-manger, before starting to make the ascent of the Piz Margatsch, one of the tallest and by far the most difficult among the peaks of the Bernina range. There are few prettier villages in the Engadine than Pontresina, and few better hotels in all Switzerland than the old ivy-covered Englischer Hof. Yet on this particular morning, and at that particular hour, it certainly did look just a trifle cold and cheerless. 'He never makes very warm in the Engadine,' Carlo the waiter observed with a shudder, in his best English, to one of the two early risers: 'and he makes colder on an August morning here than he makes at Nice in full December.' For poor Carlo was one of those cosmopolitan waiters who follow the cosmopolitan tourist clientele round all the spas, health resorts, kurs and winter quarters of fashionable Europe. In January he and his brother, as Charles and Henri, handed round absinthes and cigarettes at the Cercle Nautique at Nice; in April, as Carlo and Enrico, they turned up again with water ices and wafer cakes in the Caffe Manzoni at Milan; and in August, the observant traveller might recognise them once more under the disguise of Karl and Heinrich, laying the table d'hote in the long and narrow old-fashioned dining-room of the Englischer Hof at Pontresina. Though their native tongue was the patois of the Canton Ticino, they spoke all the civilised languages of the world, 'and also German,' with perfect fluency, and without the slightest attempt at either grammar or idiomatic accuracy. And they both profoundly believed in their hearts that the rank, wealth, youth, beauty and fashion of all other nations were wisely ordained by the inscrutable designs of Providence for a single purpose, to enrich and reward the active, intelligent, and industrious natives of the Canton Ticino.

  'Are the guides come yet?' asked Harry Oswald of the waiter in somewhat feeble and hesitating German. He made it a point to speak German to the waiters, because he regarded it as the only proper and national language of the universal Teutonic Swiss people.

  'They await the gentlemans in the corridor,' answered Carlo, in his own peculiar and racy English; for he on his side resented the imputation that any traveller need ever converse with him in any but that traveller's own tongue, provided only it was one of the recognised and civilised languages of the world, or even German. They are a barbarous and disgusting race, those Tedeschi, look you well, Signor; they address you as though you were the dust in the piazza; yet even from them a polite and attentive person may confidently look for a modest, a very modest, but still a welcome trink-geld.

  'Then we'd better hurry up, Oswald,' said Herbert Le Breton, 'for guides are the most tyrannical set of people on the entire face of this planet. I shall have another cup of coffee before I go, though, if the guides swear at me roundly in the best Roumansch for it, anyhow.'

  'Your acquaintance with the Roumansch dialect being probably limited,' Harry Oswald answered, 'the difference between their swearing and their blessing would doubtless be reduced to a vanishing point. Though I've noticed that swearing is really a form of human speech everywhere readily understanded of the people in spite of all differences of race or language. One touch of nature, you see; and swearing, after all, is extremely natural.'

  'Are you ready?' asked Herbert, having tossed off his coffee. 'Yes? Then come along at once. I can feel the guides frowning at us through the partition.'

  They turned out into the street, with its green-shuttered windows all still closed in the pale grey of early morning, and walked along with the three guides by the high road which leads through rocks and fir-trees up to the beginning of the steep path to the Piz Margatsch. Passing the clear emerald-green waterfall that rushes from under the lower melting end of the Morteratsch glacier, they took at once to the narrow track by the moraine along the edge of the ice, and then to the glacier itself, which is easy enough climbing, as glaciers go, for a good pedestrian. Herbert Le Breton, the older mountaineer of the two, got over the big blocks readily enough; but Harry, less accustomed to Swiss expeditions, lagged and loitered behind a little, and required more assistance from the guides every now and again than his sturdy companion.

  'I'm getting rather blown at starting,' Harry called out at last to Herbert, some yards in front of him. 'Do you think the despotic guide would let us sit down and rest a bit if we asked him very prettily?'

  'Offer him a cigar first,' Herbert shouted back, 'and then after a short and decent interval, prefer your request humbly in your politest French. The savage potentate always expects to be propitiated by gifts, as a preliminary to answering the petitions of his humble subjects.'

  'I see,' Harry said, laughing. 'Supply before grievances, not grievances before supply.' And he halted a moment to light a cigar, and to offer one to each of the two guides who were helping him along on either side.

  Thus mollified, the senior guide grudgingly allowed ten minutes' halt and a drink of water at the bend by the corner of the glacier. They sat down upon the great translucent sea-green blocks and began talking with the taciturn chief guide.

  'Is this glacier dangerous?' Harry asked.

  'Dangerous, monsieur? Oh no, not as one counts glaciers. It is very safe. There are seldom accidents.'

  'But there have been some?'

  'Some, naturally. You don't climb mountains always without accidents. There was one the first time anyone ever made the ascent of the Piz Margatsch. That was fifty years ago. My uncle was killed in it.'

  'Killed in it?' Harry echoed. 'How did it all happen, and where?'

  'Yonder, monsieur, in a crevasse that was then situated near the bend at the corner, just where the great crevasse you see before you now stands. That was fifty years ago; since then the glacier has moved much. Its substance, in effect, has changed entirely.'

  'Tell us all about it,' Herbert put in carelessly. He knew the guide wouldn't go on again till he had finished his whole story.

  'It's a strange tale,' the guide answered, taking a puff or two at his cigar pensively and then removing it altogether for his set narrative——he had told the tale before a hundred times, and he had the very words of it now regularly by heart. 'It was the first time anyone ever tried to climb the Piz Margatsch. At that time, nobody in the valley knew the best path; it is my father who afterwards discovered it. Two English gentlemen came to Pontresina one morning; one might say you two gentlemen; but in those days there were not many tourists in the Engadine; the exploitation of the tourist had not yet begun to be developed. My father and my uncle were then the only two guides at Pontresina. The English gentlemen asked them to try with them the scaling of the Piz Margatsch. My uncle was afraid of it, but my father laughed down his fears. So they started. My uncle was dressed in a blue coat with brass buttons, and a pair of brown velvet breeches. Ah, heaven, I can see him yet, his white corpse in the blue coat and the brown velvet breeches!'

  'But you can't be fifty yourself,' Harry said, looking at the tall long-limbed man attentively; 'no, nor forty, nor thirty either.'

  'No, monsieur, I am twenty-seven,' the chief guide answered, taking another puff at his cigar very deliberately; 'and this was fifty years ago: yet I have seen his corpse just as the accident happened. You shall hear all about it. It is a tale from the dead; it is worth hearing.'

  'This begins to grow mysterious,' said Herbert in English, hammering impatiently at the ice with the shod end of his alpenstock. 'Sounds for all the world just like the introduction to a Christmas number.'

  'A young girl in the village loved my uncle,' the guide went on imperturhably; 'and she begged him not to go on this expedition. She was betrothed to him. But he wouldn't listen: and they all started together for the top of the Piz Margatsch. After many trials, my father and my uncle and the two tourists reached the summit. "So you see, Andreas," said my father, "your fears were all folly." "Half-way through the forest," said my uncle, "one is not yet safe from the wolf." Then they began to descend again. They got down past all the dangerous places, and on to this glacier, so well known, so familiar. And then my uncle began indeed to get careless. He laughed at his own fears; "Cathrein was all wrong," he said to my father, "we shall get down again safely, with Our Lady's assistance." So they reached at last the great crevasse. My father and one of the Englishmen got over without difficulty; but the other Englishman slipped; his footing failed him; and he was sinking, sinking, down, down, down, slipping quickly into the deep dark green abyss below. My uncle stretched out his hand over the edge: the Englishman caught it; and then my uncle missed his foothold, they both fell together and were lost to sight at once completely, in the invisible depths of the great glacier!'

  'Well,' Herbert Le Breton said, as the man paused a moment. 'Is that all?'

  'No,' the guide answered, with a tone of deep solemnity. 'That is not all. The glacier went on moving, moving, slowly, slowly, but always downward, for years and years. Yet no one ever heard anything more of the two lost bodies. At last one day, when I was seven years old, I went out playing with my brother, among the pine-woods, near the waterfall that rushes below there, from under the glacier. We saw something lying in the ice-cold water, just beneath the bottom of the ice-sheet. We climbed over the moraine; and there, oh heaven! we could see two dead bodies. They were drowned, just drowned, we thought: it might have been yesterday. One of them was short and thick-set, with the face of an Englishman: he was close-shaven, and, what seemed odd to us, he had on clothes which, though we were but children, we knew at once for the clothes of a long past fashion——in fact, a suit of the Louis dix-huit style. Tha other was a tall and handsome man, dressed in the unchangeable blue coat and brown velvet breeches of our own canton, of the Graubunden. We were very frightened about it, and so we ran away trembling and told an old woman who lived close by; her name was Cathrein, and her grandchildren used to play with us, though she herself was about the age of my father, for my father married very late. Old Cathrein came out with us to look; and the moment she saw the bodies, she cried out with a great cry, "It is he! It is Andreas! It is my betrothed, who was lost on the very day week when I was to be married. I should know him at once among ten thousand. It is many, many years now, but I have not forgotten his face——ah, my God, that face; I know it well!" And she took his hand in hers, that fair white young hand in her own old brown withered one, and kissed it gently. "And yet," she said, "he is five years older than me, this fair young man here; five years older than me!" We were frightened to hear her talk so, for we said to ourselves, "She must be mad;" so we ran home and brought our father. He looked at the dead bodies and at old Cathrein, and he said, "It is indeed true. He is my brother." Ah, monsieur, you would not have forgotten it if you had seen those two old people standing there beside the fresh corpses they had not seen for all those winters! They themselves had meanwhile grown old and grey and wrinkled; but the ice of the glacier had kept those others young, and fresh, and fair, and beautiful as on the day they were first engulfed in it. It was terrible to look at!'

  'A most ghastly story, indeed,' Herbert Le Breton said, yawning; 'and now I think we'd better be getting under way again, hadn't we, Oswald?'

  Harry Oswald rose from his seat on the block of ice unwillingly, and proceeded on his road up the mountain with a distinct and decided feeling of nervousness. Was it the guide's story that made his knees tremble slightly? was it his own inexperience in climbing? or was it the cold and the fatigue of the first ascent of the season to a man not yet in full pedestrian Alpine training? He did not feel at all sure about it in his own mind: but this much he knew with perfect certainty, that his footing was not nearly so secure under him as it had been during the earlier part of the climb over the lower end of the glacier.

  By-and-by they reached the long sheer snowy slope near the Three Brothers. This slope is liable to slip, and requires careful walking, so the guides began roping them together. 'The stout monsieur in front, next after me,' said the chief guide, knotting the rope soundly round Herbert Le Breton: 'then Kaspar; then you, monsieur,' to Harry Oswald, 'and finally Paolo, to bring up the rear. The thin monsieur is nervous, I think; it's best to place him most in the middle.'

  'If you really are nervous, Oswald,' Herbert said, not unkindly, 'you'd better stop behind, I think, and let me go on with two of the guides. The really hard work, you know, has scarcely begun yet.'

  'Oh dear, no,' Harry answered lightly (he didn't care to confess his timidity before Herbert Le Breton of all men in the world): 'I do feel just a little groggy about the knees, I admit; but it's not nervousness, it's only want of training. I haven't got accustomed to glacier-work yet, and the best way to overcome it is by constant practice. "Solvitur ambulando," you know, as Aldrich says about Achilles and the tortoise.'

  'Very good,' Herbert answered drily; 'only mind, whatever you do, for Heaven's sake don't go and stumble and pull me down on the top of you. It's the clear duty of a good citizen to respect the lives of the other men who are roped together with him on the side of a mountain.'

  They set to work again, in single file, with cautious steps planted firmly on the treacherous snow, to scale the great white slope that stretched so temptingly before them. Harry felt his knees becoming at every step more and more ungovernable, while Herbert didn't improve matters by calling out to him from time to time, 'Now, then, look out for a hard bit here,' or 'Mind that loose piece of ice there,' or 'Be very careful how you put your foot down by the yielding edge yonder,' and so forth. At last, they had almost reached the top of the slope, and were just above the bare gulley on the side, when Harry's insecure footing on a stray scrap of ice gave way suddenly, and he begain to slip rapidly down the sheer slope of the mountain. In a second he had knocked against Paolo, and Paolo had begun to slip too, so that both were pulling with all their weight against Kaspar and the others in front. 'For Heaven's sake, man,' Herbert cried hastily, 'dig your alpenstock deep into the snow.' At the same instant, the chief guide shouted in Roumansch to the same effect to Kaspar. But even as they spoke, Kaspar, pushing his feet hard against the snow, began to give way too; and the whole party seemed about to slip together down over the sheer rocky precipice of the great gulley on the right. It was a moment of supreme anxiety; but Herbert Le Breton, looking back with blood almost unstirred and calmly observant eye, saw at once the full scope of the threatening danger. 'There's only one chance,' he said to himself quietly. 'Oswald is lost already! Unless the rope breaks, we are all lost together!' At that very second, Harry Oswald, throwing his arms up wildly, had reached the edge of the terrible precipice; he went over with a piercing cry into the abyss, with the last guide beside him, and Kaspar following him close in mute terror. Then Herbert Le Breton felt the rope straining, straining, straining, upon the sharp frozen edge of the rock; for an inappreciable point of time it strained and crackled: one loud snap, and it was gone for ever. Herbert and the chief guide, almost upset by the sudden release from the heavy pull that was steadily dragging them over, threw themselves flat on their faces in the drifted snow, and checked their fall by a powerful muscular effort. The rope was broken and their lives were saved, but what had become of the three others?

  They crept cautiously on hands and knees to the most practicable spot at the edge of the precipice, and the guide peered over into the great white blank below with eager eyes of horrid premonition. As he did so, he recoiled with awe, and made a rapid gesture with his hands, half prayer, half speechless terror. 'What do you see?' asked Herbert, not daring himself to look down upon the blank beneath him, lest he should be tempted to throw himself over in a giddy moment.

  'Jesu, Maria,' cried the guide, crossing himself instinctively over and over again, 'they have all fallen to the very foot of the second precipice! They are lying, all three, huddled together on the ledge there just above the great glacier. They are dead, quite dead, dead before they reached the ground even. Great God, it is too terrible!'

  Herbert Le Breton looked at the white-faced guide with just the faintest suspicion of a sneering curl upon his handsome features. The excitement of the danger was over now, and he had at once recovered his usual philosophic equanimity. 'Quite dead,' he said, in French, 'quite dead, are they? Then we can't be of any further use to them. But I suppose we must go down again at once to help recover the dead bodies!'

  The guide gazed at him blankly with simple open-mouthed undisguised amazement. 'Naturally,' he said, in a very quiet voice of utter disgust and loathing. 'You wouldn't leave them lying there alone on the cold snow, would you?'

  'This is really most annoying,' thought Herbert Le Breton to himself, in his rational philosophic fashion: 'here we are, almost at the summit, and now we shall have to turn back again from the very threshold of our goal, without having seen the view for which we've climbed up, and risked our lives too——all for a purely sentimental reason, because we won't leave those three dead men alone on the snow for an hour or two longer! it's a very short climb to the top now, and I could manage it by myself in twenty minutes. If only the chief guide had slid over with the others, I should have gone on alone, and had the view at least for my trouble. I could have pretended the accident happened on the way down again. As it is, I shall have to turn back ingloriously, re infecta. The guide will tell everybody at Pontresina that I went on, in spite of the accident; and then it would get into the English papers, and all the world would say that I was so dreadfully cruel and heartless. People are always so irrational in their ethical judgments. Oswald's quite dead, that's certain; nobody could fall over such a precipice as that without being killed a dozen times over before he even reached the bottom. A very painless and easy death too; I couldn't myself wish for a better one. We can't do them the slightest good by picking up their lifeless bodies, and yet a foolishly sentimental public opinion positively compels one to do it. Poor Oswald! Upon my soul I'm sorry for him, and for that pretty little sister of his too; but what's the use of bothering about it? The thing's done, and nothing that I can do or say will ever make it any better.'

  So they turned once more in single file down by the great glacier, and retraced their way to Pontresina without exchanging another word. To say the truth, the chief guide felt appalled and frightened by the presence of this impassive, unemotional British traveller, and did not even care to conceal his feelings. But then he wasn't an educated philosopher and man of culture like Herbert Le Breton.

  Late that evening a party of twelve villagers brought back three stiff and mangled corpses on loose cattle hurdles into the village of Pontresina. Two of them were the bodies of two local Swiss guides, and the third, with its delicate face unscathed by the fall, and turned calmly upwards to the clear moonlight, was the body of Harry Oswald. Alas, alas, Gilboa! The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places.

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