“So this is the last night, monsieur. It is always sad, the last night.”
“It is not exactly as we planned it,” replied Chayne, and his eyes moved from the throng before him in the direction of the churchyard, where a few days before his friend had been laid amongst the other Englishmen who had fallen in the Alps. “I do not think that I shall ever come back to Chamonix,” he said, in a quiet and heart-broken voice.
Michel gravely nodded his head.
“There are no friendships,” said he, “like those made amongst the snows. But this, monsieur, I say: Your friend is not greatly to be pitied. He was young, had known no suffering, no ill-health, and he died at once. He did not even kick the snow for a little while.”
“No doubt that’s true,” said Chayne, submitting to the commonplace, rather than drawing from it any comfort. He called to the waiter. “Since it is the last night, Michel,” he said, with a smile, “we will drink another bottle of beer.”
He leaned back in his chair and once more grew silent, watching the thronged street and the twinkling lights. In the little square one of the musicians with a very clear sweet voice was singing a plaintive song, and above the hum of the crowd, the melody, haunting in its wistfulness, floated to Chayne’s ears, and troubled him with many memories.
Michel leaned forward upon the table and answered not merely with sympathy but with the air of one speaking out of full knowledge, and speaking moreover in a voice of warning.
“True, monsieur. The happiest memories can be very bitter—if one has no one to share them. All is in that, monsieur. If,” and he repeated his phrase—“If one has no one to share them.” Then the technical side of Chayne’s proposal took hold of him.
“The Col Dolent? You will have to start early from the Chalet de Lognan, monsieur. You will sleep there, of course, to-morrow. You will have to start at midnight—perhaps even before. There is very little snow this year. The great bergschrund will be very difficult. In any season it is always difficult to cross that bergschrund on to the steep ice-slope beyond. It is so badly bridged with snow. This season it will be as bad as can be. The ice-slope up to the Col will also take a long time. So start very early.”
As Michel spoke, as he anticipated the difficulties and set his thoughts to overcome them, his eyes lit up, his whole face grew younger.
“I wish you were coming with me Michel,” he said, and at once the animation died out of Michel’s face. He became once more a sad, dispirited man.
“Alas, monsieur,” he said, “I have crossed my last Col. I have ascended my last mountain.”
“You, Michel?” cried Chayne.
“Yes, monsieur, I,” replied Michel, quietly. “I have grown old. My eyes hurt me on the mountains, and my feet burn. I am no longer fit for anything except to lead mules up to the Montanvert and conduct parties on the Mer de Glace.”
Chayne stared at Michel Revailloud. He thought of what the guide’s life had been, of its interest, its energy, its achievement. More than one of those aiguilles towering upon his left hand, into the sky, had been first conquered by Michel Revailloud. And how he had enjoyed it all! What resource he had shown, what cheerfulness. Remorse gradually seized upon Chayne as he looked across the little iron table at his guide.
“Yes, it is a little sad,” continued Revailloud. “But I think that toward the end, life is always a little sad, if”—and the note of warning once more was audible—“if one has no well-loved companion to share one’s memories.”
The very resignation of Michel’s voice brought Chayne to a yet deeper compunction. The wistful melody still throbbed high and sank, and soared again above the murmurs of the passers-by and floated away upon the clear hot starlit night. Chayne wondered with what words it spoke to his old guide. He looked at the tired sad face on which a smile of friendliness now played, and his heart ached. He felt some shame that his own troubles had so engrossed him. After all, Lattery was not greatly to be pitied. That was true. He himself too was young. There would come other summers, other friends. The real irreparable trouble sat there before him on the other side of the iron table, the trouble of an old age to be lived out in loneliness.
“You never married, Michel?” he said.
“No. There was a time, long ago, when I would have liked to,” the guide answered, simply. “But I think now it was as well that I did not get my way. She was very extravagant. She would have needed much money, and guides are poor people, monsieur—not like your professional cricketers,” he said, with a laugh. And then he turned toward the massive wall of mountains. Here and there a slim rock spire, the Dru or the Charmoz, pointed a finger to the stars, here and there an ice-field glimmered like a white mist held in a fold of the hills. But to Michel Revailloud, the whole vast range was spread out as on a raised map, buttress and peak, and dome of snow from the Aiguille d’Argentière in the east to the summit of Mont Blanc in the west. In his thoughts he turned from mountain to mountain and found each one, majestic and beautiful, dear as a living friend, and hallowed with recollections. He remembered days when they had called, and not in vain, for courage and endurance, days of blinding snow-storms and bitter winds which had caught him half-way up some ice-glazed precipice of rock or on some long steep ice-slope crusted dangerously with thin snow into which the ax must cut deep hour after hour, however frozen the fingers, or tired the limbs. He recalled the thrill of joy with which, after many vain attempts, he, the first of men, had stepped on to the small topmost pinnacle of this or that new peak. He recalled the days of travel, the long glacier walks on the high level from Chamonix to Zermatt, and from Zermatt again to the Oberland; the still clear mornings and the pink flush upon some high white cone which told that somewhere the sun had risen; and the unknown ridges where expected difficulties suddenly vanished at the climber’s approach, and others where an easy scramble suddenly turned into the most difficult of climbs. Michel raised his glass in the air. “Here is good-by to you—the long good-by,” he said, and his voice broke. And abruptly he turned to Chayne with his eyes full of tears and began to speak in a quick passionate whisper, while the veins stood out upon his forehead and his face quivered.
“Monsieur, I told you your friend was not greatly to be pitied. I tell you now something more. The guide we brought down with him from the Glacier des Nantillons a fortnight back—all this fortnight I have been envying him—yes, yes, even though he kicked the snow with his feet for a little before he died. It is better to do so than to lead mules up to the Montanvert.”
“I am sorry,” said Chayne.
The words sounded, as he spoke them, lame enough and trivial in the face of Michel’s passionate lament. But they had an astonishing effect upon the guide. The flow of words stopped at once, he looked at his young patron almost whimsically and a little smile played about his mouth.
“’I am sorry,’” he repeated. “Those were the words the young lady spoke to you on the steps of the hotel. You have spoken with her, monsieur, and thanked her for them?”
“No,” said Chayne, and there was much indifference in his voice.
Women had, as yet, not played a great part in Chayne’s life. Easy to please, but difficult to stir, he had in the main just talked with them by the way and gone on forgetfully: and when any one had turned and walked a little of his road beside him, she had brought to him no thought that here might be a companion for all the way. His indifference roused Michel to repeat, and this time unmistakably, the warning he had twice uttered.
He leaned across the table, fixing his eyes very earnestly on his patron’s face. “Take care, monsieur,” he said. “You are lonely to-night—very lonely. Then take good care that your old age is not one lonely night like this repeated and repeated through many years! Take good care that when you in your turn come to the end, and say good-by too”—he waved his hand toward the mountains—“you have some one to share your memories. See, monsieur!” and very wistfully he began to plead, “I go home to-night, I go out of Chamonix, I cross a field or two, I come to Les Praz-Conduits and my cottage. I push open the door. It is all dark within. I light my own lamp and I sit there a little by myself. Take an old man’s wisdom, monsieur! When it is all over and you go home, take care that there is a lighted lamp in the room and the room not empty. Have some one to share your memories when life is nothing but memories.” He rose as he ended, and held out his hand. As Chayne took it, the guide spoke again, and his voice shook:
“Monsieur, you have been a good patron to me,” he said, with a quiet and most dignified simplicity, “and I make you what return I can. I have spoken to you out of my heart, for you will not return to Chamonix and after to-night we shall not meet again.”
“Thank you,” said Chayne, and he added: “We have had many good days together, Michel.”
“We have, monsieur.”
“I climbed my first mountain with you.”
“The Aiguille du Midi. I remember it well.”
Both were silent after that, and for the same reason. Neither could trust his voice. Michel Revailloud picked up his hat, turned abruptly away and walked out of the café into the throng of people. Chayne resumed his seat and sat there, silent and thoughtful, until the street began to empty and the musicians in the square ceased from their songs.
Meanwhile Michel Revailloud walked slowly down the street, stopping to speak with any one he knew however slightly, that he might defer his entrance into the dark and empty cottage at Les Praz-Conduits. He drew near to the hotel where Chayne was staying and saw under the lamp above the door a guide whom he knew talking with a young girl. The young girl raised her head. It was she who had said, “I am sorry.” As Michel came within the circle of light she recognized him. She spoke quickly to the guide and he turned at once and called “Michel,” and when Revailloud approached, he presented him to Sylvia Thesiger. “He has made many first ascents in the range of Mont Blanc, mademoiselle.”
Sylvia held out her hand with a smile of admiration.
“I know,” she said. “I have read of them.”
“Really?” cried Michel. “You have read of them—you, mademoiselle?”
There was as much pleasure as wonder in his tone. After all, flattery from the lips of a woman young and beautiful was not to be despised, he thought, the more especially when the flattery was so very well deserved. Life had perhaps one or two compensations to offer him in his old age.
“Yes, indeed. I am very glad to meet you, Michel. I have known your name a long while and envied you for living in the days when these mountains were unknown.”
Revailloud forgot the mules to the Montanvert and the tourists on the Mer de Glace. He warmed into cheerfulness. This young girl looked at him with so frank an envy.
“Yes, those were great days, mademoiselle,” he said, with a thrill of pride in his voice. “But if we love the mountains, the first ascent or the hundredth—there is just the same joy when you feel the rough rock beneath your fingers or the snow crisp under your feet. Perhaps mademoiselle herself will some time—”
At once Sylvia interrupted him with an eager happiness—
“Yes, to-morrow,” she said.
“Oho! It is your first mountain, mademoiselle?”
“And Jean here is your guide. Jean and his brother, I suppose?” Michel laid his hand affectionately on the guide’s shoulder. “You could not do better, mademoiselle.”
He looked at her thoughtfully for a little while. She was fresh—fresh as the smell of the earth in spring after a fall of rain. Her eyes, the alertness of her face, the eager tones of her voice, were irresistible to him, an old tired man. How much more irresistible then to a younger man. Her buoyancy would lift such an one clear above his melancholy, though it were deep as the sea. He himself, Michel Revailloud, felt twice the fellow he had been when he sat in the balcony above the Arve.
“And what mountain is it to be, mademoiselle?” he asked.
The girl took a step from the door of the hotel and looked upward. To the south, but quite close, the long thin ridge of the Aiguille des Charmoz towered jagged and black against the starlit sky. On one pinnacle of that ridge a slab of stone was poised like the top of a round table on the slant. It was at that particular pinnacle that Sylvia looked.
“L’Aiguille des Charmoz,” said Michel, doubtfully, and Sylvia swung round to him and argued against his doubt.
“But I have trained myself,” she said. “I have been up the Brévent and Flégère. I am strong, stronger than I look.”
Michel Revailloud smiled.
“Mademoiselle, I do not doubt you. A young lady who has enthusiasm is very hard to tire. It is not because of the difficulty of that rock-climb that I thought to suggest—the Aiguille d’Argentière.”
Sylvia turned with some hesitation to the younger guide.
“You too spoke of that mountain,” she said.
Michel pressed his advantage.
“And wisely, mademoiselle. If you will let me advise you, you will sleep to-morrow night at the Pavillon de Lognan and the next day climb the Aiguille d’Argentière.”
Sylvia looked regretfully up to the ridge of the Charmoz which during this last fortnight had greatly attracted her. She turned her eyes from the mountain to Revailloud and let them rest quietly upon his face.
“And why do you advise the Aiguille d’Argentière?” she asked.
Michel saw her eyes softly shining upon him in the darkness, and all the more persisted. Was not his dear patron who must needs be helped to open his eyes, since he would not open them himself, going to sleep to-morrow in the Pavillon de Lognan? The roads to the Col Dolent and the Aiguille d’Argentière both start from that small mountain inn. But this was hardly the reason which Michel could give to the young girl who questioned him. He bethought him of another argument, a subtle one which he fancied would strongly appeal to her. Moreover, there was truth in it.
“I will tell you why, mademoiselle. It is to be your first mountain. It will be a day in your life which you will never forget. Therefore you want it to be as complete as possible—is it not so? It is a good rock-climb, the Aiguille des Charmoz—yes. But the Argentière is more complete. There is a glacier, a rock traverse, a couloir up a rock-cliff, and at the top of that a steep ice-slope. And that is not all. You want your last step on to the summit to reveal a new world to you. On the Charmoz, it is true, there is a cleft at the very top up which you scramble between two straight walls and you pop your head out above the mountain. Yes, but you see little that is new; for before you enter the cleft you see both sides of the mountain. With the Argentière it is different. You mount at the last, for quite a time behind the mountain with your face to the ice-slope; and then suddenly you step out upon the top and the chain of Mont Blanc will strike suddenly upon your eyes and heart. See, mademoiselle, I love these mountains with a very great pride and I would dearly like you to have that wonderful white revelation of a new strange world upon your first ascent.”
Before he had ended, he knew that he had won. He heard the girl draw sharply in her breath. She was making for herself a picture of the last step from the ice-slope to summit ridge.
“Very well,” she said. “It shall be the Aiguille d’Argentière.”
Michel went upon his way out of Chamonix and across the fields. They would be sure to speak, those two, to-morrow at the Pavillon de Lognan. If only there were no other party there in that small inn! Michel’s hopes took a leap and reached beyond the Pavillon de Lognan. To ascend one’s first mountain—yes, that was enviable and good. But one should have a companion with whom one can live over again the raptures of that day, in the after time. Well—perhaps—perhaps!
Michel pushed open the door of his cottage, and lit his lamp, without after all bethinking him that the room was dark and empty. His ice-axes stood in a corner, the polished steel of their adz-heads gleaming in the light; his Rücksack and some coils of rope hung upon pegs; his book with the signatures and the comments of his patrons lay at his elbow on the table, a complete record of his life. But he was not thinking that they had served him for the last time. He sat down in his chair and so remained for a little while. But a smile was upon his face, and once or twice he chuckled aloud as he thought of his high diplomacy. He did not remember at all that to-morrow he would lead mules up to the Montanvert and conduct parties on the Mer de Glace.