At five o’clock on the next afternoon, Chayne was leaning upon the rail looking straight down to the ice-fall. The din of the torrent was in his ears, and it was not until a foot sounded lightly close behind him that he knew he was no longer alone. He turned round and saw to his surprise the over-dainty doll of the Annemasse buffet, the child of the casinos and the bathing beaches, Sylvia Thesiger. His surprise was very noticeable and Sylvia’s face flushed. She made him a little bow and went into the chalet.
Chayne noticed a couple of fresh guides by the door of the guides’ quarters. He remembered the book which he had seen her reading with so deep an interest in the buffet. And in a minute or two she came out again on to the earth platform and he saw that she was not overdressed to-day. She was simply and warmly dressed in a way which suggested business. On the other hand she had not made herself ungainly. He guessed her mountain and named it to her.
“Yes,” she replied. “Please say that it will be fine to-morrow!”
“I have never seen an evening of better promise,” returned Chayne, with a smile at her eagerness. The brown cliffs of the Aiguille du Chardonnet just across the glacier glowed red in the sunlight; and only a wisp of white cloud trailed like a lady’s scarf here and there in the blue of the sky. The woman of the chalet came out and spoke to him.
“She wants to know when we will dine,” he explained to Sylvia. “There are only you and I. We should dine early, for you will have to start early”; and he repeated the invariable cry of that year: “There is so very little snow. It may take you some time to get off the glacier on to your mountain. There is always a crevasse to cross.”
“I know,” said Sylvia, with a smile. “The bergschrund.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Chayne, and in his turn he smiled too. “Of course you know these terms. I saw you reading a copy of the ‘Alpine Journal.’”
They dined together an hour later with the light of the sunset reddening the whitewashed walls of the little simple room and bathing in glory the hills without. Sylvia Thesiger could hardly eat for wonder. Her face was always to the window, her lips were always parted in a smile, her gray eyes bright with happiness.
“I have never known anything like this,” she said. “It is all so strange, so very beautiful.”
Her freshness and simplicity laid their charm on him, even as they had done on Michel Revailloud the night before. She was as eager as a child to get the meal done with and to go out again into the open air, before the after-glow had faded from the peaks. There was something almost pathetic in her desire to make the very most of such rare moments. Her eagerness so clearly told him that such holidays came but seldom in her life. He urged her, however, to eat, and when she had done they went out together and sat upon the bench, watching in silence the light upon the peaks change from purple to rose, the rocks grow cold, and the blue of the sky deepen as the night came.
“You too are making an ascent?” she asked.
“No,” he answered. “I am crossing a pass into Italy. I am going away from Chamonix altogether.”
Sylvia turned to him; her eyes were gentle with sympathy.
“Yes, I understand that,” she said. “I am sorry.”
“You said that once before to me, on the steps of the hotel,” said Chayne. “It was kind of you. Though I said nothing, I was grateful”; and he was moved to open his heart to her, and to speak of his dead friend. The darkness gathered about them; he spoke in the curt sentences which men use who shrink from any emotional display; he interrupted himself to light his pipe. But none the less she understood the reality of his distress. He told her with a freedom of which he was not himself at the moment quite aware, of a clean, strong friendship which owed nothing to sentiment, which was never fed by protestations, which endured through long intervals, and was established by the memory of great dangers cheerily encountered and overcome. It had begun amongst the mountains, and surely, she thought, it had retained to the end something of their inspiration.
“We first met in the Tyrol, eight years ago. I had crossed a mountain with a guide—the Glockturm—and came down in the evening to the Radurschal Thal where I had heard there was an inn. The evening had turned to rain; but from a shoulder of the mountain I had been able to look right down the valley and had seen one long low building about four miles from the foot of the glacier. I walked through the pastures toward it, and found sitting outside the door in the rain the man who was to be my friend. The door was locked, and there was no one about the house, nor was there any other house within miles. My guide, however, went on. Lattery and I sat out there in the rain for a couple of hours, and then an old woman with a big umbrella held above her head came down from the upper pastures, driving some cows in front of her. She told us that no one had stayed at her inn for fourteen years. But she opened her door, lit us a great fire, and cooked us eggs and made us coffee. I remember that night as clearly as if it were yesterday. We sat in front of the fire with the bedding and the mattresses airing behind us until late into the night. The rain got worse too. There was a hole in the thatch overhead, and through it I saw the lightning slash the sky, as I lay in bed. Very few people ever came up or down that valley; and the next morning, after the storm, the chamois were close about the inn, on the grass. We went on together. That was the beginning.”
He spoke simply, with a deep quietude of voice. The tobacco glowed and grew dull in the bowl of his pipe regularly; the darkness hid his face. But the tenderness, almost the amusement with which he dwelt on the little insignificant details of that first meeting showed her how very near to him it was at this moment.
“We went from the Tyrol down to Verona and baked ourselves in the sun there for a day, under the colonnades, and then came back through the St. Gotthard to Göschenen. Do you know the Göschenen Thal? There is a semicircle of mountains, the Winterbergen, which closes it in at the head. We climbed there together for a week, just he and I and no guides. I remember a rock-ridge there. It was barred by a pinnacle which stood up from it—‘a gendarme,’ as they call it. We had to leave the arête and work out along the face of the pinnacle at right angles to the mountain. There was a little ledge. You could look down between your feet quite straight to the glacier, two thousand feet below. We came to a place where the wall of the pinnacle seemed possible. Almost ten feet above us, there was a flaw in the rock which elsewhere was quite perpendicular. I was the lightest. So my friend planted himself as firmly as he could on the ledge with his hands flat against the rock face. There wasn’t any handhold, you see, and I climbed out on to his back and stood upon his shoulders. I saw that the rock sloped back from the flaw or cleft in quite a practicable way. Only there was a big boulder resting on the slope within reach, and which we could hardly avoid touching. It did not look very secure. So I put out my hand and just touched it—quite, quite gently. But it was so exactly balanced that the least little vibration overset it, and I saw it begin to move, very slowly, as if it meant no harm whatever. But it was moving, nevertheless, toward me. My chest was on a level with the top of the cleft, so that I had a good view of the boulder. I couldn’t do anything at all. It was much too heavy and big for my arms to stop and I couldn’t move, of course, since I was standing on Jack Lattery’s shoulders. There did not seem very much chance, with nothing below us except two thousand feet of vacancy. But there was just at my side a little bit of a crack in the edge of the cleft, and there was just a chance that the rock might shoot out down that cleft past me. I remember standing and watching the thing sliding down, not in a rush at all, but very smoothly, almost in a friendly sort of way, and I wondered how long it would be before it reached me. Luckily some irregularity in the slope of rock just twisted it into the crack, and it suddenly shot out into the air at my side with a whizz. It was so close to me that it cut the cloth of my sleeve. I had been so fascinated by the gentle movement of the boulder that I had forgotten altogether to tell Lattery what was happening; and when it whizzed out over his head, he was so startled that he nearly lost his balance on the little shelf and we were within an ace of following our rock down to the glacier. Those were our early days.” And he laughed with a low deep ring of amusement in his voice.
“We were late that day on the mountain,” he resumed, “and it was dark when we got down to a long snow-slope at its foot. It was new ground to us. We were very tired. We saw it glimmering away below us. It might end in a crevasse and a glacier for all we knew, and we debated whether we should be prudent or chance it. We chanced the crevasse. We sat down and glissaded in the dark with only the vaguest idea where we should end. Altogether we had very good times, he and I. Well, they have come to an end on the Glacier des Nantillons.”
Chayne became silent; Sylvia Thesiger sat at his side and did not interrupt. In front of them the pastures slid away into darkness. Only a few small clear lights shining in the chalets told them there were other people awake in the world. Except for the reverberation of the torrent deep in the gorge at their right, no sound at all broke the deep silence. Chayne knocked the ashes from his pipe.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I have been talking to you about one whom you never knew. You were so quiet that I seemed to be merely remembering to myself.”
“I was so quiet,” Sylvia explained, “because I wished you to go on. I was very glad to hear you. It was all new and strange and very pleasant to me—this story of your friendship. As strange and pleasant as this cool, quiet night here, a long way from the hotels and the noise, on the edge of the snow. For I have heard little of such friendships and I have seen still less.”
Chayne’s thoughts were suddenly turned from his dead friend to this, the living companion at his side. There was something rather sad and pitiful in the tone of her voice, no less than in the words she used. She spoke with so much humility. He was aware with a kind of shock, that here was a woman, not a child. He turned his eyes to her, as he had turned his thoughts. He could see dimly the profile of her face. It was still as the night itself. She was looking straight in front of her into the darkness. He pondered upon her life and how she bore with it, and how she had kept herself unspoiled by its associations. Of the saving grace of her dreams he knew nothing. But the picture of her mother was vivid to his eyes, the outlawed mother, shunned instinctively by the women, noisy and shrill, and making her companions of the would-be fashionable loiterers and the half-pay officers run to seed. That she bore it ill her last words had shown him. They had thrown a stray ray of light upon a dark place which seemed a place of not much happiness.
“I am very glad that you are here to-night,” he said. “It has been kind of you to listen. I rather dreaded this evening.”
Though what he said was true, it was half from pity that he said it. He wished her to feel her value. And in reply she gave him yet another glimpse into the dark place.
“Your friend,” she said, “must have been much loved in Chamonix.”
“So many guides came of their own accord to search for him.”
Again Chayne’s face was turned quickly toward her. Here indeed was a sign of the people amongst whom she lived, and of their unillumined thoughts. There must be the personal reason always, the personal reason or money. Outside of these, there were no motives. He answered her gently:
“No; I think that was not the reason. How shall I put it to you?” He leaned forward with his elbows upon his knees, and spoke slowly, choosing his words. “I think these guides obeyed a law, a law not of any man’s making, and the one law last broken—the law that what you know, that you must do, if by doing it you can save a life. I should think nine medals out of ten given by the Humane Society are given because of the compulsion of that law. If you can swim, sail a boat, or climb a mountain, and the moment comes when a life can only be saved if you use your knowledge—well, you have got to use it. That’s the law. Very often, I have no doubt, it’s quite reluctantly obeyed, in most cases I think it’s obeyed by instinct, without consideration of the consequences. But it is obeyed, and the guides obeyed it when so many of them came with me on to the Glacier des Nantillons.”
He heard the girl at his side draw in a sharp breath. She shivered.
“You are cold?”
“No,” she answered. “But that, too, is all strange to me. I should have known of that law without the need to be told of it. But I shall not forget it.”
Again humility was very audible in the quiet tone of her voice. She understood that she had been instructed. She felt she should not have needed it. She faced her ignorance frankly.
“What one knows, that one must do,” she repeated, fixing the words in her mind, “if by doing it one can save a life. No, I shall not forget that.”
She rose from the seat.
“I must go in.”
“Yes,” cried Chayne, starting up. “You have stayed up too long as it is. You will be tired to-morrow.”
“Not till to-morrow evening,” she said, with a laugh. She looked upward to the starlit sky. “It will be fine, I hope. Oh, it must be fine. To-morrow is my one day. I do so want it to be perfect,” she exclaimed.
“I don’t think you need fear.”
She held out her hand to him.
“This is good-by, I suppose,” she said, and she did not hide the regret the words brought to her.
Chayne took her hand and kept it for a second or two. He ought to start an hour and a half before her. That he knew very well. But he answered:
“No. We go the same road for a little while. When do you start?”
“At half past one.”
“I too. It will be daybreak before we say good-by. I wonder whether you will sleep at all to-night. I never do the first night.”
He spoke lightly, and she answered him in the same key.
“I shall hardly know whether I sleep or wake, with the noise of that stream rising through my window. For so far back as I can remember I always dream of running water.”
The words laid hold upon Chayne’s imagination and fixed her in his memories. He knew nothing of her really, except just this one curious fact. She dreamed of running water. Somehow it was fitting that she should. There was a kind of resemblance; running water was, in a way, an image of her. She seemed in her nature to be as clear and fresh; yet she was as elusive; and when she laughed, her laugh had a music as light and free.
She went into the chalet. Through the window Chayne saw her strike a match and hold it to the candle. She stood for a moment looking out at him gravely, with the light shining upward upon her young face. Then a smile hesitated upon her lips and slowly took possession of her cheeks and eyes. She turned and went into her room.