He glanced at them, placed them in their category, and looked away, utterly uninterested. They belonged to the great class of the continental wanderers, people of whom little is known and everything suspected—people with no kinsfolk, who flit from hotel to hotel and gather about them for a season the knowing middle-aged men and the ignorant young ones, and perhaps here and there an unwary woman deceived by the more than fashionable cut of their clothes. The mother he put down as nearer forty than thirty, and engaged in a struggle against odds to look nearer twenty than thirty. The daughter’s face Chayne could not see, for it was bent persistently over a book. But he thought of a big doll in a Christmas toy-shop. From her delicate bronze shoes to her large hat of mauve tulle everything that she wore was unsuitable. The frock with its elaborations of lace and ribbons might have passed on the deal boards of Trouville. Here at Annemasse her superfineness condemned her.
Chayne would have thought no more of her, but as he passed her table on his way out of the buffet his eyes happened to fall on the book which so engrossed her. There was a diagram upon the page with which he was familiar. She was reading an old volume of the “Alpine Journal.” Chayne was puzzled—there was so marked a contradiction between her outward appearance and her intense absorption in such a subject as Alpine adventure. He turned at the door and looked back. Sylvia Thesiger had raised her head and was looking straight at him. Thus their eyes met, and did more than meet.
Chayne, surprised as he had been by the book which she was reading, was almost startled by the gentle and rather wistful beauty of the face which she now showed to him. He had been prepared at the best for a fresh edition of the mother’s worn and feverish prettiness. What he saw was distinct in quality. It seemed to him that an actual sympathy and friendliness looked out from her dark and quiet eyes, as though by instinct she understood with what an eager exultation he set out upon his holiday. Sylvia, indeed, living as she did within herself, was inclined to hero-worship naturally; and Chayne was of the type to which, to some extent through contrast with the run of her acquaintance, she gave a high place in her thoughts. A spare, tall man, clear-eyed and clean of feature, with a sufficient depth of shoulder and wonderfully light of foot, he had claimed her eyes the moment that he entered the buffet. Covertly she had watched him, and covertly she had sympathized with the keen enjoyment which his brown face betrayed. She had no doubts in her mind as to the intention of his holiday; and as their eyes met now involuntarily, a smile began to hesitate upon her lips. Then she became aware of the buffet, and her ignorance of the man at whom she looked, and, with a sudden mortification, of her own over-elaborate appearance. Her face flushed, and she lowered it again somewhat quickly to the pages of her book. But it was as though for a second they had spoken.
Chayne, however, forgot Sylvia Thesiger. As the train moved on to Le Fayet he was thinking only of the plans which he had made, of the new expeditions which were to be undertaken, of his friend John Lattery and his guide Michel Revailloud who would be waiting for him upon the platform of Chamonix. He had seen neither of them for four years. The electric train carried the travelers up from Le Fayet. The snow-ridges and peaks came into view; the dirt-strewn Glacier des Bossons shot out a tongue of blue ice almost to the edge of the railway track, and a few minutes afterward the train stopped at the platform of Chamonix.
Chayne jumped down from his carriage and at once suffered the first of his disappointments. Michel Revailloud was on the platform to meet him, but it was a Michel Revailloud whom he hardly knew, a Michel Revailloud grown very old. Revailloud was only fifty-two years of age, but during Chayne’s absence the hardships of his life had taken their toll of his vigor remorselessly. Instead of the upright, active figure which Chayne so well remembered, he saw in front of him a little man with bowed shoulders, red-rimmed eyes, and a withered face seamed with tiny wrinkles.
At this moment, however, Michel’s pleasure at once more seeing his old patron gave to him at all events some look of his former alertness, and as the two men shook hands he cried:
“Monsieur, but I am glad to see you! You have been too long away from Chamonix. But you have not changed. No, you have not changed.”
In his voice there was without doubt a note of wistfulness. “I would I could say as much for myself.” That regret was as audible to Chayne as though it had been uttered. But he closed his ears to it. He began to talk eagerly of his plans. There were familiar peaks to be climbed again and some new expeditions to be attempted.
“I thought we might try a new route up the Aiguille sans Nom,” he suggested, and Michel assented but slowly, without the old heartiness and without that light in his face which the suggestion of something new used always to kindle. But again Chayne shut his ears.
“I was very lucky to find you here,” he went on cheerily. “I wrote so late that I hardly hoped for it.”
Michel replied with some embarrassment:
“I do not climb with every one, monsieur. I hoped perhaps that one of my old patrons would want me. So I waited.”
Chayne looked round the platform for his friend.
“And Monsieur Lattery?” he asked.
The guide’s face lit up.
“Monsieur Lattery? Is he coming too? It will be the old days once more.”
“Coming? He is here now. He wrote to me from Zermatt that he would be here.”
Revailloud shook his head.
“He is not in Chamonix, monsieur.”
Chayne experienced his second disappointment that morning, and it quite chilled him. He had come prepared to walk the heights like a god in the perfection of enjoyment for just six weeks. And here was his guide grown old; and his friend, the comrade of so many climbs, so many bivouacs above the snow-line, had failed to keep his tryst.
“Perhaps there will be a letter from him at Couttet’s,” said Chayne, and the two men walked through the streets to the hotel. There was no letter, but on the other hand there was a telegram. Chayne tore it open.
“Yes it’s from Lattery,” he said, as he glanced first at the signature. Then he read the telegram and his face grew very grave. Lattery telegraphed from Courmayeur, the Italian village just across the chain of Mont Blanc:
“Starting now by Col du Géant and Col des Nantillons.”
The Col du Géant is the most frequented pass across the chain, and no doubt the easiest. Once past its great ice-fall, the glacier leads without difficulty to the Montanvert hotel and Chamonix. But the Col des Nantillons is another affair. Having passed the ice-fall, and when within two hours of the Montanvert, Lattery had turned to the left and had made for the great wall of precipitous rock which forms the western side of the valley through which the Glacier du Géant flows down, the wall from which spring the peaks of the Dent du Requin, the Aiguille du Plan, the Aiguille de Blaitière, the Grépon and the Charmoz. Here and there the ridge sinks between the peaks, and one such depression between the Aiguille de Blaitière and the Aiguille du Grépon is called the Col des Nantillons. To cross that pass, to descend on the other side of the great rock-wall into that bay of ice facing Chamonix, which is the Glacier des Nantillons, had been Lattery’s idea.
Chayne turned to the porter.
“When did this come?”
“Three days ago.”
The gravity on Chayne’s face changed into a deep distress. Lattery’s party would have slept out one night certainly. They would have made a long march from Courmayeur and camped on the rocks at the foot of the pass. It was likely enough that they should have been caught upon that rock-wall by night upon the second day. The rock-wall had never been ascended, and the few who had descended it bore ample testimony to its difficulties. But a third night, no! Lattery should have been in Chamonix yesterday, without a doubt. He would not indeed have food for three nights and days.
Chayne translated the telegram into French and read it out to Michel Revailloud.
“The Col des Nantillons,” said Michel, with a shake of the head, and Chayne saw the fear which he felt himself looking out from his guide’s eyes.
“It is possible,” said Michel, “that Monsieur Lattery did not start after all.”
“He would have telegraphed again.”
“Yes,” Michel agreed. “The weather has been fine too. There have been no fogs. Monsieur Lattery could not have lost his way.”
“Hardly in a fog on the Glacier du Géant,” replied Chayne.
Michel Revailloud caught at some other possibility.
“Of course, some small accident—a sprained ankle—may have detained him at the hut on the Col du Géant. Such things have happened. It will be as well to telegraph to Courmayeur.”
“Why, that’s true,” said Chayne, and as they walked to the post-office he argued more to convince himself than Michel Revailloud. “It’s very likely—some quite small accident—a sprained ankle.” But the moment after he had sent the telegram, and when he and Michel stood again outside the post-office, the fear which was in him claimed utterance.
“The Col des Nantillons is a bad place, Michel, that’s the truth. Had Lattery been detained in the hut he would have found means to send us word. In weather like this, that hut would be crowded every night; every day there would be some one coming from Courmayeur to Chamonix. No! I am afraid of the steep slabs of that rock-wall.”
And Michael Revailloud said slowly:
“I, too, monsieur. It is a bad place, the Col des Nantillons; it is not a quick way or a good way to anywhere, and it is very dangerous. And yet I am not sure. Monsieur Lattery was very safe on rocks. Ice, that is another thing. But he would be on rock.”
It was evident that Michel was in doubt, but it seemed that Chayne could not force himself to share it.
“You had better get quietly together what guides you can, Michel,” he said. “By the time a rescue party is made up the answer will have come from Courmayeur.”
Chayne walked slowly back to the hotel. All those eager anticipations which had so shortened his journey this morning, which during the last two years had so often raised before his eyes through the shimmering heat of the Red Sea cool visions of ice-peaks and sharp spires of rock, had crumbled and left him desolate. Anticipations of disaster had taken their place. He waited in the garden of the hotel at a spot whence he could command the door and the little street leading down to it. But for an hour no messenger came from the post-office. Then, remembering that a long sad work might be before him, he went into the hotel and breakfasted. It was twelve o’clock and the room was full. He was shown a place amongst the other newcomers at one of the long tables, and he did not notice that Sylvia Thesiger sat beside him. He heard her timid request for the salt, and passed it to her; but he did not speak, he did not turn; and when he pushed back his chair and left the room, he had no idea who had sat beside him, nor did he see the shadow of disappointment on her face. It was not until later in the afternoon when at last the blue envelope was brought to him. He tore it open and read the answer of the hotel proprietor at Courmayeur:
“Lattery left four days ago with one guide for Col du Géant.”
He was standing by the door of the hotel, and looking up he saw Michel Revailloud and a small band of guides, all of whom carried ice-axes and some Rücksacks on their backs, and ropes, come tramping down the street toward him.
Michel Revailloud came close to his side and spoke with excitement.
“He has been seen, monsieur. It must have been Monsieur Lattery with his one guide. There were two of them,” and Chayne interrupted him quickly.
“Yes, there were two,” he said, glancing at his telegram. “Where were they seen?”
“High up, monsieur, on the rocks of the Blaitière. Here, Jules”; and in obedience to Michel’s summons, a young brown-bearded guide stepped out from the rest. He lifted his hat and told his story:
“It was on the Mer de Glace, monsieur, the day before yesterday. I was bringing a party back from the Jardin, and just by the Moulin I saw two men very high up on the cliffs of the Blaitière. I was astonished, for I had never seen any one upon those cliffs before. But I was quite sure. None of my party could see them, it is true, but I saw them clearly. They were perhaps two hundred feet below the ridge between the Blaitière and the Grépon and to the left of the Col.”
“What time was this?”
“Four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Yes,” said Chayne. The story was borne out by the telegram. Leaving Courmayeur early, Lattery and his guide would have slept the night on the rocks at the foot of the Blaitière, they would have climbed all the next day and at four o’clock had reached within two hundred feet of the ridge, within two hundred feet of safety. Somewhere within those last two hundred feet the fatal slip had been made; or perhaps a stone had fallen.
“For how long did you watch them?” asked Chayne.
“For a few minutes only. My party was anxious to get back to Chamonix. But they seemed in no difficulty, monsieur. They were going well.”
Chayne shook his head at the hopeful words and handed his telegram to Michel Revailloud.
“The day before yesterday they were on the rocks of the Blaitière,” he said. “I think we had better go up to the Mer de Glace and look for them at the foot of the cliffs.”
“Monsieur, I have eight guides here and two will follow in the evening when they come home. We will send three of them, as a precaution, up the Mer de Glace. But I do not think they will find Monsieur Lattery there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I believe Monsieur Lattery has made the first passage of the Col des Nantillons from the east,” he said, with a peculiar solemnity. “I think we must look for them on the western side of the pass, in the crevasses of the Glacier des Nantillons.”
“Surely not,” cried Chayne. True, the Glacier des Nantillons in places was steep. True, there were the seracs—those great slabs and pinnacles of ice set up on end and tottering, high above, where the glacier curved over a brow of rock and broke—one of them might have fallen. But Lattery and he had so often ascended and descended that glacier on the way to the Charmoz and the Grépon and the Plan. He could not believe his friend had come to harm that way.
Michel, however, clung to his opinion.
“The worst part of the climb was over,” he argued. “The very worst pitch, monsieur, is at the very beginning when you leave the glacier, and then it is very bad again half way up when you descend into a gully; but Monsieur Lattery was very safe on rock, and having got so high, I think he would have climbed the last rocks with his guide.”
Michel spoke with so much certainty that even in the face of his telegram, in the face of the story which Jules had told, hope sprang up within Chayne’s heart.
“Then he may be still up there on some ledge. He would surely not have slipped on the Glacier des Nantillons.”
That hope, however, was not shared by Michel Revailloud.
“There is very little snow this year,” he said. “The glaciers are uncovered as I have never seen them in all my life. Everywhere it is ice, ice, ice. Monsieur Lattery had only one guide with him and he was not so sure on ice. I am afraid, monsieur, that he slipped out of his steps on the Glacier des Nantillons.”
“And dragged his guide with him?” exclaimed Chayne. His heart rather than his judgment protested against the argument. It seemed to him disloyal to believe it. A man should not slip from his steps on the Glacier des Nantillons. He turned toward the door.
“Very well,” he said. “Send three guides up the Mer de Glace. We will go up to the Glacier des Nantillons.”
He went up to his room, fetched his ice-ax and a new club-rope with the twist of red in its strands, and came down again. The rumor of an accident had spread. A throng of tourists stood about the door and surrounded the group of guides, plying them with questions. One or two asked Chayne as he came out on what peak the accident had happened. He did not reply. He turned to Michel Revailloud and forgetful for the moment that he was in Chamonix, he uttered the word so familiar in the High Alps, so welcome in its sound.
“Vorwärts, Michel,” he said, and the word was the Open Sesame to a chamber which he would gladly have kept locked. There was work to do now; there would be time afterward to remember—too long a time. But in spite of himself his recollections rushed tumultuously upon him. Up to these last four years, on some day in each July his friend and he had been wont to foregather at some village in the Alps, Lattery coming from a Government Office in Whitehall, Chayne now from some garrison town in England, now from Malta or from Alexandria, and sometimes from a still farther dependency. Usually they had climbed together for six weeks, although there were red-letter years when the six weeks were extended to eight, six weeks during which they lived for the most part on the high level of the glaciers, sleeping in huts, or mountain inns, or beneath the stars, and coming down only for a few hours now and then into the valley towns. Vorwärts! The months of their comradeship seemed to him epitomized in the word. The joy and inspiration of many a hard climb came back, made bitter with regret for things very pleasant and now done with forever. Nights on some high ledge, sheltered with rocks and set in the pale glimmer of snow-fields, with a fire of brushwood lighting up the faces of well-loved comrades; half hours passed in rock chimneys wedged overhead by a boulder, or in snow-gullies beneath a bulge of ice, when one man struggled above, out of sight, and the rest of the party crouched below with what security it might waiting for the cheery cry, “Es geht. Vorwärts!”; the last scramble to the summit of a virgin peak; the swift glissade down the final snow-slopes in the dusk of the evening with the lights of the village twinkling below; his memories tramped by him fast and always in the heart of them his friend’s face shone before his eyes. Chayne stood for a moment dazed and bewildered. There rose up in his mind that first helpless question of distress, “Why?” and while he stood, his face puzzled and greatly troubled, there fell upon his ears from close at hand a simple message of sympathy uttered in a whisper gentle but distinct:
“I am very sorry.”
Chayne looked up. It was the overdressed girl of the Annemasse buffet, the girl who had seemed to understand then, who seemed to understand now. He raised his hat to her with a sense of gratitude. Then he followed the guides and went up among the trees toward the Glacier des Nantillons.