The long hot day drew to an end, and at last from the platform at the end of the electric train they saw the snow-fields lift toward the soaring peaks, and the peaks purple with the after glow stand solitary and beautiful against the evening sky.
“At last!” said Sylvia, with a catch in her breath, and the clasp of her hand tightened upon her husband’s arm. But Chayne was remembering certain words once spoken to him in a garden of Dorsetshire, by a man who lay idly in a hammock and stared up between the leaves. “On the most sunny day, the mountains hold in their recesses mystery and death.”
“You know where your father is staying?” Chayne asked.
“He wrote from the Hôtel de l’Arve,” Sylvia replied.
“We will stay at Couttet’s and walk over to see him this evening,” said Chayne, and after dinner they strolled across the little town. But at the Hôtel de l’Arve they found neither Garratt Skinner nor his friend, Walter Hine.
“Only the day before yesterday,” said the proprietor, “they started for the mountains. Always they make expeditions.”
Chayne drew no satisfaction from that statement. Garratt Skinner and his friend would make many expeditions from which both men would return in safety. Garratt Skinner was no blunderer. And when at the last he returned alone with some flawless story of an accident in which his friend had lost his life, no one would believe but that here was another mishap, and another name to be added to the Alpine death-roll.
“To what mountain have they gone?” Chayne asked.
“To no mountain to-day. They cross the Col du Géant, monsieur, to Courmayeur. But after that I do not know.”
“Oh, into Italy,” said Chayne, in relief. So far there was no danger. The Col du Géant, that great pass between France and Italy across the range of Mont Blanc, was almost a highway. There would be too many parties abroad amongst its ice séracs on these days of summer for any deed which needed solitude and secrecy.
“When do you expect them back?”
“In five days, monsieur; not before.” And at this reply Chayne’s fears were all renewed. For clearly the expedition was not to end with the passage of the Col du Géant. There was to be a sequel, perhaps some hazardous ascent, some expedition at all events which Garratt Skinner had not thought fit to name.
“They took guides, I suppose,” he said.
“One guide, monsieur, and a porter. Monsieur need not fear. For Monsieur Skinner is of an excellence prodigious.”
“My father!” exclaimed Sylvia, in surprise. “I never knew.”
“What guide?” asked Chayne.
“Pierre Delouvain”; and so once again Chayne’s fears were allayed. He turned to Sylvia.
“A good name, sweetheart. I never climbed with him, but I know him by report. A prudent man, as prudent as he is skilful. He would run no risks.”
The name gave him indeed greater comfort than even his words expressed. Delouvain’s mere presence would prevent the commission of any crime. His great strength would not be needed to hinder it. For he would be there, to bear witness afterward. Chayne was freed from the dread which during the last two days had oppressed him. Perhaps after all Sylvia was right and the plot was definitely abandoned. Chayne knew very well that Garratt Skinner’s passion for the Alps was a deep and real one. Perhaps it was that alone which had brought him back to Chamonix. Perhaps one day in the train, traveling northward from Italy, he had looked from the window and seen the slopes of Monte Rosa white in the sun—white with the look of white velvet—and all the last twenty years had fallen from him like a cloak, and he had been drawn back as with chains to the high playground of his youth. Chayne could very well understand that possibility, and eased of his fears he walked away with Sylvia back to the open square in the middle of the town. Darkness had come, and both stopped with one accord and looked upward to the massive barrier of hills. The rock peaks stood sharply up against the clear, dark sky, the snow-slopes glimmered faintly like a pale mist, and incredibly far, incredibly high, underneath a bright and dancing star, shone a dim and rounded whiteness, the snow-cap of Mont Blanc.
“A year ago,” said Sylvia, drawing a breath and bethinking her of the black shadows which during those twelve months had lain across her path.
“Yes, a year ago we were here,” said Chayne. The little square was thronged, the hotels and houses were bright with lights, and from here and from there music floated out upon the air, the light and lilting melodies of the day. “Sylvia, you see the café down the street there by the bridge?”
“A year ago, on just such a night as this, I sat with my guide, Michel Revailloud. I was going to cross the Col Dolent on the morrow. He had made his last ascent. We were not very cheerful. And he gave me as a parting present the one scrap of philosophy his life had taught him. He said: ‘Take care that when the time comes for you to get old that you have some one to share your memories. Take care that when you go home in the end, there shall be some one waiting in the room and the lamp lit against your coming.’”
Sylvia pressed against her side the hand which he had slipped through her arm.
“But he did more than give advice,” Chayne continued, “for as he went away to his home in the little village of Les Praz-Conduits, just across the fields, he passed Couttet’s Hotel and saw you under the lamp talking to a guide he knew. You were making your arrangements to ascend the Charmoz. But he dissuaded you.”
“He convinced you that your first mountain should be the Aiguille d’Argentière. He gave you no doubt many reasons, but not the real one which he had in his thoughts.”
Sylvia looked at Chayne in surprise.
“He sent you to the Aiguille d’Argentière, because he knew that so you and I would meet at the Pavilion de Lognan.”
“But he had never spoken to me until that night,” exclaimed Sylvia.
“Yet he had noticed you. When I went up to fetch down my friend Lattery, you were standing on the hotel step. You said to me, ‘I am sorry.’ Michel heard you speak, and that evening talked of you. He had the thought that you and I were matched.”
Sylvia looked back to the night before her first ascent. She pictured to herself the old guide coming down the narrow street and out of the darkness into the light of the lamp above the doorway. She recalled how he had stopped at the sight of her, how cunningly he had spoken. He had desired that her last step on to her first summit should bring to her eyes and soul a revelation which no length of after years could dim. That was the argument, and it was just the argument which would prevail with her.
“So it was his doing,” she cried, with a laugh, and at once grew serious, dwelling, as lovers will, upon the small accident which had brought them together, and might so easily never have occurred. An unknown guide speaks to her in a doorway, and lo! for her the world is changed, dark years come to an end, the pathway broadens to a road; she walks not alone. Whatever the future may hold—she walks not alone. Suppose there had been no lamp above the doorway! Suppose there had been a lamp and she not there! Suppose the guide had passed five minutes sooner or five minutes later!
“Oh, Hilary!” she cried, and put the thought from her.
“I was thinking,” he said, “that if you were not tired we might walk across the fields to Michel’s house. He would, I think, be very happy if we did.”
A few minutes later they knocked upon Michel’s door. Michel Revailloud opened it himself and stood for a moment peering at the dim figures in the darkness of the road.
“It is I, Michel,” said Chayne, and at the sound of his voice Michel Revailloud drew him with a cry of welcome into the house.
“So you have come back to Chamonix, monsieur! That is good”; and he looked his “monsieur” over from head to foot and shook him warmly by the hand. “Ah, you have come back!”
“And not alone, Michel,” said Chayne.
Revailloud turned to the door and saw Sylvia standing there. She was on the threshold and the light reached to her. Sylvia moved into the low-roofed room. It was a big, long room, bare, and with a raftered ceiling, and since one oil lamp lighted it, it was full of shadows. To Chayne it had a lonely and a dreary look. He thought of his own house in Sussex and of the evening he had passed there, thinking it just as lonely. He felt perhaps at this moment, more than at any, the value of the great prize which he had won. He took her hand in his, and, turning to Michel, said simply:
“We are married, Michel. We reached Chamonix only this evening. You are the first of our friends to know of our marriage.”
Michel’s face lighted up. He looked from one to the other of his visitors and nodded his head once or twice. Then he blew his nose vigorously. “But I let you stand!” he cried, in a voice that shook a little, and he bustled about pushing chairs forward, and of a sudden stopped. He came forward to Sylvia very gravely and held out his hand. She put her hand into his great palm.
“Madame, I will not pretend to you that I am not greatly moved. This is a great happiness to me,” he said with simplicity. He made no effort to hide either the tears which filled his eyes or the unsteadiness of his voice. “I am very glad for the sake of Monsieur Chayne. But I know him well. We have been good friends for many a year, madame.”
“I know, Michel,” she said.
“And I can say therefore with confidence I am very glad for your sake too. I am also very glad for mine. A minute ago I was sitting here alone—now you are both here and together. Madame, it was a kind thought which brought you both here to me at once.”
“To whom else should we come?” said Sylvia with a smile, “since it was you, Michel, who would not let me ascend the Aiguille des Charmoz when I wanted to.”
Michel was taken aback for a moment; then his wrinkled and weatherbeaten face grew yet more wrinkled and he broke into a low and very pleasant laugh.
“Since my diplomacy has been so successful, madame, I will not deny it. From the first moment when I heard you with your small and pretty voice say on the steps of the hotel ‘I am sorry’ to my patron in his great distress, and when I saw your face, too thoughtful for one so young, I thought it would be a fine thing if you and he could come together. In youth to be lonely—what is it? You slip on your hat and your cloak and you go out. But when you are old, and your habits are settled, and you do not want to go out at nights to search for company, then it is as well to have a companion. And it is well to choose your companion in your youth, madame, so that you may have many recollections to talk over together when the good of life is chiefly recollection.”
He made his visitors sit down, fetched out a bottle of wine and offered them the hospitalities of his house, easily and naturally, like the true gentleman he was. It seemed to Chayne that he looked a little older, that he was a little more heavy in his gait, a little more troubled with his eyes than he had been last year. But at all events to-night he had the spirit, the good-humor of his youth. He talked of old exploits upon peaks then unclimbed, he brought out his guide’s book, in which his messieurs had written down their names and the dates of the climbs, and the photographs which they had sent to him.
“There are many photographs of men grown famous, madame,” he said, proudly, “with whom I had the good fortune to climb when they and I and the Alps were all young together. But it is not only the famous who are interesting. Look, madame! Here is your husband’s friend, Monsieur Lattery—a good climber but not always very sure on ice.”
“You always will say that, Michel,” protested Chayne. “I never knew a man so obstinate.”
Michel Revailloud smiled and said to Sylvia:
“I knew he would spring out on me. Never say a word against Monsieur Lattery if you would keep friends with Monsieur Chayne. See, I give you good advice in return for your kindness in visiting an old man. Nevertheless,” and he dropped his voice in a pretence of secrecy and nodded emphatically: “It is true. Monsieur Lattery was not always sure on ice. And here, madame, is the portrait of one whose name is no doubt known to you in London—Professor Kenyon.”
Sylvia, who was turning over the leaves of the guide’s little book, looked up at the photograph.
“It was taken many years ago,” she said.
“Twenty or twenty-five years ago,” said Michel, with a shrug of the shoulders, “when he and I and the Alps were young.”
Chayne began quickly to look through the photographs outspread upon the table. If Kenyon’s portrait was amongst Revailloud’s small treasures, there might be another which he had no wish for his wife to see, the portrait of the man who climbed with Kenyon, who was Kenyon’s “John Lattery.” There might well be the group before the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt which he himself had seen in Kenyon’s rooms. Fortunately however, or so it seemed to him, Sylvia was engrossed in Michel’s little book.