“We will stop here,” said Michel Revailloud, as he stepped on to the little platform of earth in front of the door. “If we start again at midnight, we shall be on the glacier at daybreak. We cannot search the Glacier des Nantillons in the dark.”
Chayne agreed reluctantly. He would have liked to push on if only to lull thought by the monotony of their march. Moreover during these last two hours, some faint rushlight of hope had been kindled in his mind which made all delay irksome. He himself would not believe that his friend John Lattery, with all his skill, his experience, had slipped from his ice-steps like any tyro; Michel, on the other hand, would not believe that he had fallen from the upper rocks of the Blaitière on the far side of the Col. From these two disbeliefs his hope had sprung. It was possible that either Lattery or his guide lay disabled, but alive and tended, as well as might be, by his companion on some insecure ledge of that rock-cliff. A falling stone, a slip checked by the rope might have left either hurt but still living. It was true that for two nights and a day the two men must have already hung upon their ledge, that a third night was to follow. Still such endurance had been known in the annals of the Alps, and Lattery was a hard strong man.
A girl came from the chalet and told him that his dinner was ready. Chayne forced himself to eat and stepped out again on to the platform. A door opened and closed behind him. Michel Revailloud came from the guides’ quarters at the end of the chalet and stood beside him in the darkness, saying nothing since sympathy taught him to be silent, and when he moved moving with great gentleness.
“I am glad, Michel, that we waited here since we had to wait,” said Chayne.
“This chalet is new to you, monsieur. It has been built while you were away.”
“Yes. And therefore it has no associations, and no memories. Its bare whitewashed walls have no stories to tell me of cheery nights on the eve of a new climb when he and I sat together for a while and talked eagerly of the prospects of to-morrow.”
The words ceased. Chayne leaned his elbows on the wooden rail. The mists in the valley below had been swept away; overhead the stars shone out of an ebony sky very bright as on some clear winter night of frost, and of all that gigantic amphitheater of mountains which circled behind them from right to left there was hardly a hint. Perhaps here some extra cube of darkness showed where a pinnacle soared, or there a vague whiteness glimmered where a high glacier hung against the cliff, but for the rest the darkness hid the mountains. A cold wind blew out of the East and Chayne shivered.
“You are cold, monsieur?” said Michel. “It is your first night.”
“No, I am not cold,” Chayne replied, in a low and quiet voice. “But I am thinking it will be deadly cold up there in the darkness on the rocks of the Blaitière.”
Michel answered him in the same quiet voice. On that broad open plateau both men spoke indeed as though they were in a sick chamber.
“While you were away, monsieur, three men without food sat through a night on a steep ice-sheltered ice-slope behind us, high up on the Aiguille du Plan, as high up as the rocks of the Blaitière. And not one of them came to any harm.”
“I know. I read of it,” said Chayne, but he gathered little comfort from the argument.
Michel fumbled in his pocket and drew out a pipe. “You do not smoke any more?” he asked. “It is a good thing to smoke.”
“I had forgotten,” said Chayne.
He filled his pipe and then took a fuse from his match-box.
“No, don’t waste it,” cried Michel quickly before he could strike it. “I remember your fuses, monsieur.”
Michel struck a sulphur match and held it as it spluttered, and frizzled, in the hollow of his great hands. The flame burnt up. He held it first to Chayne’s pipe-bowl and then to his own; and for a moment his face was lit with the red glow. Its age thus revealed, and framed in the darkness, shocked Chayne, even at this moment, more than it had done on the platform at Chamonix. Not merely were its deep lines shown up, but all the old humor and alertness had gone. The face had grown mask-like and spiritless. Then the match went out.
Chayne leaned upon the rail and looked downward. A long way below him, in the clear darkness of the valley the lights of Chamonix shone bright and very small. Chayne had never seen them before so straight beneath him. As he looked he began to notice them; as he noticed them, more and more they took a definite shape. He rose upright, and pointing downward with one hand he said in a whisper, a whisper of awe—
“Do you see, Michel? Do you see?”
The great main thoroughfare ran in a straight line eastward through the town, and, across it, intersecting it at the little square where the guides gather of an evening, lay the other broad straight road from the church across the river. Along those two roads the lights burned most brightly, and thus there had emerged before Chayne’s eyes a great golden cross. It grew clearer and clearer as he looked; he looked away and then back again, and now it leapt to view, he could not hide it from his sight, a great cross of light lying upon the dark bosom of the valley.
“Do you see, Michel?”
“Yes.” The answer came back very steadily. “But so it was last night and last year. Those three men on the Plan had it before their eyes all night. It is no sign of disaster.” For a moment he was silent, and then he added timidly: “If you look for a sign, monsieur, there is a better one.”
Chayne turned toward Michel in the darkness rather quickly.
“As we set out from the hotel,” Michel continued, “there was a young girl upon the steps with a very sweet and gentle face. She spoke to you, monsieur. No doubt she told you that her prayers would be with you to-night.”
“No, Michel,” Chayne replied, and though the darkness hid his face, Michel knew that he smiled. “She did not promise me her prayers. She simply said: ‘I am sorry.’”
Michel Revailloud was silent for a little while, and when he spoke again, he spoke very wistfully. One might almost have said that there was a note of envy in his voice.
“Well, that is still something, monsieur. You are very lonely to-night, is it not so? You came back here after many years, eager with hopes and plans and not thinking at all of disappointments. And the disappointments have come, and the hopes are all fallen. Is not that so, too? Well, it is something, monsieur—I, who am lonely too, and an old man besides, so that I cannot mend my loneliness, I tell you—it is something that there is a young girl down there with a sweet and gentle face who is sorry for you, who perhaps is looking up from among those lights to where we stand in the darkness at this moment.”
But it seemed that Chayne did not hear, or, if he heard, that he paid no heed. And Michel, knocking the tobacco from his pipe, said:
“You will do well to sleep. We may have a long day before us”; and he walked away to the guides’ quarters.
But Chayne could not sleep; hope and doubt fought too strongly within him, wrestling for the life of his friend. At twelve o’clock Michel knocked upon his door. Chayne got up from his bed at once, drew on his boots, and breakfasted. At half past the rescue party set out, following a rough path through a wilderness of boulders by the light of a lantern. It was still dark when they came to the edge of the glacier, and they sat down and waited. In a little while the sky broke in the East, a twilight dimly revealed the hills, Michel blew out the lantern, the blurred figures of the guides took shape and outline, and silently the morning dawned upon the world.
The guides moved on to the glacier and spread over it, ascending as they searched.
“You see, monsieur, there is very little snow this year,” said Michel, chipping steps so that he and Chayne might round the corner of a wide crevasse.
“Yes, but it does not follow that he slipped,” said Chayne, hotly, for he was beginning to resent that explanation as an imputation against his friend.
Slowly the party moved upward over the great slope of ice into the recess, looking for steps abruptly ending above a crevasse or for signs of an avalanche. They came level with the lower end of a long rib of rock which crops out from the ice and lengthwise bisects the glacier. Here the search ended for a while. The rib of rocks is the natural path, and the guides climbed it quickly. They came to the upper glacier and spread out once more, roped in couples. They were now well within the great amphitheater. On their left the cliffs of the Charmoz overlapped them, on the right the rocks of the Blaitière. For an hour they advanced, cutting steps since the glacier was steep, and then from the center of the glacier a cry rang out. Chayne at the end of the line upon the right looked across. A little way in front of the two men who had shouted something dark lay upon the ice. Chayne, who was with Michel Revailloud, called to him and began hurriedly to scratch steps diagonally toward the object.
“Take care, monsieur,” cried Michel.
Chayne paid no heed. Coming up from behind on the left-hand side, he passed his guide and took the lead. He could tell now what the dark object was, for every now and then a breath of wind caught it and whirled it about the ice. It was a hat. He raised his ax to slice a step and a gust of wind, stronger than the others, lifted the hat, sent it rolling and skipping down the glacier, lifted it again and gently dropped it at his feet. He stooped down and picked it up. It was a soft broad-brimmed hat of dark gray felt. In the crown there was the name of an English maker. There was something more too. There were two initials—J.L.
Chayne turned to Michel Revailloud.
“You were right, Michel,” he said, solemnly. “My friend has made the first passage of the Col des Nantillons from the East.”
The party moved forward again, watching with redoubled vigilance for some spot in the glacier, some spot above a crevasse, to which ice-steps descended and from which they did not lead down. And three hundred yards beyond a second cry rang out. A guide was standing on the lower edge of a great crevasse with a hand upheld above his head. The searchers converged quickly upon him. Chayne hurried forward, plying the pick of his ax as never in his life had he plied it. Had the guide come upon the actual place where the accident took place, he asked himself? But before he reached the spot, his pace slackened, and he stood still. He had no longer any doubt. His friend and his friend’s guide were not lying upon any ledge of the rocks of the Aiguille de Blaitière; they were not waiting for any succor.
On the glacier, a broad track, littered with blocks of ice, stretched upward in a straight line from the upper lip of the crevasse to the great ice-fall on the sky-line where the huge slabs and pinnacles of ice, twisted into monstrous shapes, like a sea suddenly frozen when a tempest was at its height, stood marshaled in serried rows. They stood waiting upon the sun. One of them, melted at the base, had crashed down the slope, bursting into huge fragments as it fell, and cleaving a groove even in that hard glacier.
Chayne went forward and stopped at the guide’s side on the lower edge of the crevasse. Beyond the chasm the ice rose in a blue straight wall for some three feet, and the upper edge was all crushed and battered; and then the track of the falling serac ended. It had poured into the crevasse.
The guide pointed to the left of the track.
“Do you see, monsieur? Those steps which come downward across the glacier and stop exactly where the track meets them? They do not go on, on the other side of the track, monsieur.”
Chayne saw clearly enough. The two men had been descending the glacier in the afternoon, the avalanche had fallen and swept them down. He dropped upon his knees and peered into the crevasse. The walls of the chasm descended smooth and precipitous, changing in gradual shades and color from pale transparent green to the darkest blue, until all color was lost in darkness. He bent his head and shouted into the depths:
And only his voice came back to him, cavernous and hollow. He shouted again, and then he heard Michel Revailloud saying solemnly behind him:
“Yes, they are here.”
Suddenly Chayne turned round, moved by a fierce throb of anger.
“It’s not true, you see,” he cried. “He didn’t slip out of his steps and drag his guide down with him. You were wrong, Michel.”
Michel was standing with his hat in his hand.
“Yes, monsieur, I was quite wrong,” he said, gently. He turned to a big and strong man:
“François, will you put on the rope and go down?”
They knotted the rope securely about François’ waist and he took his ice-ax in his hand, sat down on the edge of the crevasse with his legs dangling, turned over upon his face and said:
“When I pull the rope, haul in gently.”
They lowered him carefully down for sixty feet, and at that depth the rope slackened. François had reached the bottom of the crevasse. For a few moments they watched the rope move this way and that, and then there came a definite pull.
“He has found them,” said Michel.
Some of the guides lined out with the rope in their hands. Chayne took his position in the front, at the head of the line and nearest to the crevasse. The pull upon the rope was repeated, and slowly the men began to haul it in. It did not occur to Chayne that the weight upon the rope was heavy. One question filled his mind, to the exclusion of all else. Had François found his friend? What news would he bring of them when he came again up to the light? François’ voice was heard now, faintly, calling from the depths. But what he said could not be heard. The line of men hauled in the rope more and more quickly and then suddenly stopped and drew it in very gently. For they could now hear what François said. It was but one word, persistently repeated:
And so gently they drew him up toward the mouth of the crevasse. Chayne was standing too far back to see down beyond the edge, but he could hear François’ ax clattering against the ice-walls, and the grating of his boots. Michel, who was kneeling at the edge of the chasm, held up his hand, and the men upon the rope ceased to haul. In a minute or two he lowered it.
“Gently,” he said, “gently,” gazing downward with a queer absorption. Chayne began to hear François’ labored breathing and then suddenly at the edge of the crevasse he saw appear the hair of a man’s head.
“Up with him,” cried a guide; there was a quick strong pull upon the rope and out of the chasm, above the white level of the glacier, there appeared a face—not François’ face—but the face of a dead man. Suddenly it rose into the colorless light, pallid and wax-like, with open, sightless eyes and a dropped jaw, and one horrid splash of color on the left forehead, where blood had frozen. It was the face of Chayne’s friend, John Lattery; and in a way most grotesque and horrible it bobbed and nodded at him, as though the neck was broken and the man yet lived. When François just below cried, “Gently! Gently,” it seemed that the dead man’s mouth was speaking.
Chayne uttered a cry; then a deathly sickness overcame him. He dropped the rope, staggered a little way off like a drunken man and sat down upon the ice with his head between his hands.
Some while later a man came to him and said:
“We are ready, monsieur.”
Chayne returned to the crevasse. Lattery’s guide had been raised from the crevasse. Both bodies had been wrapped in sacks and cords had been fixed about their legs. The rescue party dragged the bodies down the glacier to the path, and placing them upon doors taken from a chalet, carried them down to Chamonix. On the way down François talked for a while to Michel Revailloud, who in his turn fell back to where at the end of the procession Chayne walked alone.
“Monsieur,” he said, and Chayne looked at him with dull eyes like a man dazed.
“There is something which François noticed, which he wished me to tell you. François is a good lad. He wishes you to know that your friend died at once—there was no sign of a movement. He lay in the bottom of the crevasse in some snow which was quite smooth. The guide—he had kicked a little with his feet in the snow—but your friend had died at once.”
“Thank you,” said Chayne, without the least emotion in his voice. But he walked with uneven steps. At times he staggered like one overdone and very tired. But once or twice he said, as though he were dimly aware that he had his friend’s reputation to defend:
“You see he didn’t slip on the ice, Michel. You were quite wrong. It was the avalanche. It was no fault of his.”
“I was wrong,” said Michel, and he took Chayne by the arm lest he should fall; and these two men came long after the others into Chamonix.