“Those were the grand days,” cried Sylvia. “Michel, you must be proud of this book.”
“I value it very much, madame,” he said, smiling at her enthusiasm. Michel was a human person; and to have a young girl with a lovely face looking at him out of her great eyes in admiration, and speaking almost in a voice of awe, was flattery of a soothing kind. “Yes, many have offered to buy it from me at a great price—Americans and others. But I would not part with it. It is me. And when I am inclined to grumble, as old people will, and to complain that my bones ache too sorely, I have only to turn over the pages of that book to understand that I have no excuse to grumble. For I have the proof there that my life has been very good to live. No, I would not part with that little book.”
Sylvia turned over the pages slowly, naming now this mountain, now that, and putting a question from time to time as to some point in a climb which she remembered to have read and concerning which the narrative had not been clear. And then a cry of surprise burst from her lips.
Chayne had just assured himself that there was no portrait of Gabriel Strood amongst those spread out upon the table.
“What is it, madame?” asked Michel.
Sylvia did not answer, but stared in bewilderment at the open page. Chayne saw the book which she was reading and knew that his care lest she should come across her father’s portrait was of no avail. He crossed round behind her chair and looked over her shoulder. There on the page in her father’s handwriting was the signature: “Gabriel Strood.”
Sylvia raised her face to Hilary’s, and before she could put her question he answered it quietly with a nod of the head.
“Yes, that is so,” he said.
“I have known for a long time,” he replied.
Sylvia was lost in wonder. Yet there was no doubt in her mind. Gabriel Strood, of whom she had made a hero, whose exploits she knew almost by heart, had suffered from a physical disability which might well have kept the most eager mountaineer to the level. It was because of his mastery over his disability that she had set him so high in her esteem. Well, there had been a day when her father had tramped across the downs to Dorchester and had come back lame and in spite of his lameness had left his companions behind. Other trifles recurred to her memory. She had found him reading “The Alps in 1864,” and yes—he had tried to hide from her the title of the book. On their first meeting he had understood at once when she had spoken to him of the emotion which her first mountain peak had waked in her. And before that—yes, her guide had cried aloud to her, “You remind me of Gabriel Strood.” She owed it to him that she had turned to the Alps as to her heritage, and that she had brought to them an instinctive knowledge. Her first feeling was one of sheer pride in her father. Then the doubts began to thicken. He called himself Garratt Skinner.
“Why? But why?” she cried, impulsively, and Chayne, still leaning on her chair, pressed her arm with his hand and warned her to be silent.
“I will tell you afterward,” he said, quietly, and then he suddenly drew himself upright. The movement was abrupt like the movement of a man thoroughly startled—more startled even than she had been by the unexpected sight of her father’s handwriting. She looked up into his face. He was staring at the open page of Michel’s book. She turned back to it herself and saw nothing which should so trouble him. Over Gabriel Strood’s signature there were just these words written in his hand and nothing more:
“Mont Blanc by the Brenva route. July, 1868.”
Yet it was just that sentence which had so startled Hilary. Gabriel Strood had then climbed Mont Blanc from the Italian side—up from the glacier to the top of the great rock-buttress, then along the world-famous ice-arête, thin as a knife edge, and to right and left precipitous as a wall, and on the far side above the ice-ridge up the hanging glaciers and the ice-cliffs to the summit of the Corridor. From the Italian side of the range of Mont Blanc! And the day before yesterday Gabriel Strood had crossed with Walter Hine to Italy, bound upon some expedition which would take five days, five days at the least.
It was to the Brenva ascent of Mont Blanc that Garratt Skinner was leading Walter Hine! The thought flashed upon Chayne swift as an inspiration and as convincing. Chayne was sure. The Brenva route! It was to this climb Garratt Skinner’s thoughts had perpetually recurred during that one summer afternoon in the garden in Dorsetshire, when he had forgotten his secrecy and spoken even with his enemy of the one passion they had in common. Chayne worked out the dates and they fitted in with his belief. Two days ago Garratt Skinner started to cross the Col du Géant. He would sleep very likely in the hut on the Col, and go down the next morning to Courmayeur and make his arrangements for the Brenva climb. On the third day, to-day, he would set out with Walter Hine and sleep at the gîte on the rocks in the bay to the right of the great ice-fall of the Brenva glacier. To-morrow he would ascend the buttress, traverse the ice-ridge with Walter Hine—perhaps—yes, only perhaps—and at that thought Chayne’s heart stood still. And even if he did, there were the hanging ice-cliffs above, and yet another day would pass before any alarm at his absence would be felt. Surely, it would be the Brenva route!
Garratt Skinner himself would run great risk upon this hazardous expedition—that was true. But Chayne knew enough of the man to be assured that he would not hesitate on that account. The very audacity of the exploit marked it out as Gabriel Strood’s. Moreover, there would be no other party on the Brenva ridge to spy upon his actions. There was just one fact so far as Chayne could judge to discredit his inspiration—the inconvenient presence of a guide.
“Do you know a guide Delouvain, Michel?”
“Indeed, yes! A good name, monsieur, and borne by a man worthy of it.”
“So I thought,” said Chayne. “Pierre Delouvain,” and Michel laughed scornfully and waved the name away.
“Pierre! No, indeed!” he cried. “Monsieur, never engage Pierre Delouvain for your guide. I speak solemnly. Joseph—yes, and whenever you can secure him. I thought you spoke of him. But Pierre, he is a cousin who lives upon Joseph’s name, a worthless fellow, a drunkard. Monsieur, never trust yourself or any one whom you hold dear with Pierre Delouvain!”
Chayne’s last doubt was dispelled. Garratt Skinner had laid his plans for the Brenva route. Somewhere on that long and difficult climb the accident was to take place. The very choice of a guide was in itself a confirmation of Chayne’s fears. It was a piece of subtlety altogether in keeping with Garratt Skinner. He had taken a bad and untrustworthy guide on one of the most difficult expeditions in the range of Mont Blanc. Why, he would be asked? And the answer was ready. He had confused Pierre Delouvain with Joseph, his cousin, as no doubt many another man had done before. Did not Pierre live on that very confusion? The answer was not capable of refutation.
Chayne was in despair. Garratt Skinner had started two days before from Chamonix, was already, now, at this moment, asleep, with his unconscious victim at his side, high up on the rocks of the upper Brenva glacier. There was no way to hinder him—no way unless God helped. He asked abruptly of Michel:
“Have you climbed this season, Michel?”
Michel laughed grimly.
“Indeed, yes, to the Montanvert, monsieur. And beyond—yes, beyond, to the Jardin.”
Chayne broke in upon his bitter humor.
“I want the best guide in Chamonix. I want him at once. I must start by daylight.”
Michel glanced up in surprise. But what he saw in Chayne’s face stopped all remonstrance.
“For what ascent, monsieur?” he asked.
“The Brenva route.”
“Madame will not go!”
“No, I go alone. I must go quickly. There is very much at stake. I beg you to help me.”
In answer Michel took his hat down from a peg, and while he did so Chayne turned quickly to his wife. She had risen from her chair, but she had not interrupted him, she had asked no questions, she had uttered no prayer. She stood now, waiting upon him with a quiet and beautiful confidence which deeply stirred his heart.
“Thank you, sweetheart!” he said, quietly. “You can trust. I thank you,” and he added, gravely: “Whatever happens—you and I—there is no altering that.”
Michel opened the door.
“I will walk with you into Chamonix, and I will bring the best guides I can find to your hotel.”
They passed out, and crossed the fields quickly to Chamonix.
“Do you go to your hotel, monsieur,” said Revailloud, “and leave the choice to me. I must go about it quietly. If you were to come with me, we should have to choose the first two guides upon the rota and that would not do for the Brenva climb.”
He left them at the door of the hotel and went off upon his errand. Sylvia turned at once to Hilary; her face was very pale, her voice shook.
“You will tell me everything now. Something terrible has happened. No doubt you feared it. You came to Chamonix because you feared it, and now you know that it has happened.”
“Yes,” said Chayne. “I hid it from you even as you spared me your bad news all this last year.”
“Tell me now, please. If it is to be ‘you and I,’ as you said just now, you will tell me.”
Chayne led the way into the garden, and drawing a couple of chairs apart from the other visitors told her all that he knew and she did not. He explained the episode of the lighted window, solved for her the riddle of her father’s friendship for Walter Hine, and showed her the reason for this expedition to the summit of Mont Blanc.
She uttered one low cry of horror. “Murder!” she whispered.
“To think that we are two days behind, that even now they are sleeping on the rocks, he and Walter Hine, sleeping quite peacefully and quietly. Oh, it’s horrible!” he cried, beating his hands upon his forehead in despair, and then he broke off. He saw that Sylvia was sitting with her hands covering her face, while every now and then a shudder shook her and set her trembling.
“I am so sorry, Sylvia,” he cried. “Oh, my dear, I had so hoped we should be in time. I would have spared you this knowledge if I could. Who knows? We may be still in time,” and as he spoke Michel entered the garden with one other man and came toward him.
“Henri Simond!” said Michel, presenting his companion. “You will know that name. Simond has just come down from the Grépon, monsieur. He will start with you at daylight.”
Chayne looked at Simond. He was of no more than the middle height, but broad of shoulder, deep of chest, and long of arm. His strength was well known in Chamonix—as well known as his audacity.
“I am very glad that you can come, Simond,” said Chayne. “You are the very man;” and then he turned to Michel. “But we should have another guide. I need two men.”
“Yes,” said Michel. “Three men are needed for that climb,” and Chayne left him to believe that it was merely for the climb that he needed another guide. “But there is André Droz already at Courmayeur,” he continued. “His patron was to leave him there to-day. A telegram can be sent to him to-morrow bidding him wait. If he has started, we shall meet him to-morrow on the Col du Géant. And Droz, monsieur, is the man for you. He is quick, as quick as you and Simond. The three of you together will go well. As for to-morrow, you will need no one else. But if you do, monsieur, I will go with you.”
“There is no need, Michel,” replied Chayne, gratefully, and thereupon Sylvia plucked him by the sleeve.
“I must go with you to-morrow, Hilary,” she pleaded, wistfully. “Oh, you won’t leave me here. Let me come with you as far as possible. Let me cross to Italy. I will go quick. If I get tired, you shall not know.”
“It will be a long day, Sylvia.”
“It cannot be so long as the day I should pass waiting here.”
She wrung her hands as she spoke. The light from a lamp fixed in the hotel wall fell upon her upturned face. It was white, her lips trembled, and in her eyes Chayne saw again the look of terror which he had hoped was gone forever. “Oh, please,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he replied, and he turned again to Simond. “At two o’clock then. My wife will go, so bring a mule. We can leave it at the Montanvert.”
The guides tramped from the garden. Chayne led his wife toward the hotel, slipping his arm through hers.
“You must get some sleep, Sylvia.”
“Oh, Hilary,” she cried. “I shall bring shame on you. We should never have married,” and her voice broke in a sob.
“Hush!” he replied. “Never say that, my dear, never think it! Sleep! You will want your strength to-morrow.”
But Sylvia slept little, and before the time she was ready with her ice-ax in her hand. At two o’clock they came out from the hotel in the twilight of the morning. There were two men there.
“Ah! you have come to see us off, Michel,” said Chayne.
“No, monsieur, I bring my mule,” said Revailloud, with a smile, and he helped Sylvia to mount it. “To lead mules to the Montanvert—is not that my business? Simond has a rope,” he added, as he saw Chayne sling a coil across his shoulder.
“We may need an extra one,” said Chayne, and the party moved off upon its long march. At the Montanvert hotel, on the edge of the Mer de Glace, Sylvia descended from her mule, and at once the party went down on to the ice.
“Au revoir!” shouted Michel from above, and he stood and watched them, until they passed out of his sight. Sylvia turned and waved her hand to him. But he made no answering sign. For his eyes were no longer good.
“He is very kind,” said Sylvia. “He understood that there was some trouble, and while he led the mule he sought to comfort me,” and then between a laugh and a sob she added: “You will never guess how. He offered to give me his little book with all the signatures—the little book which means so much to him.”
It was the one thing which he had to offer her, as Sylvia understood, and always thereafter she remembered him with a particular tenderness. He had been a good friend to her, asking nothing and giving what he had. She saw him often in the times which were to come, but when she thought of him, she pictured him as on that early morning standing on the bluff of cliff by the Montanvert with the reins of his mule thrown across his arm, and straining his old eyes to hold his friends in view.
Later during that day amongst the séracs of the Col du Géant, Simond uttered a shout, and a party of guides returning to Chamonix changed their course toward him. Droz was amongst the number, and consenting at once to the expedition which was proposed to him, he tied himself on to the rope.
“Do you know the Brenva ascent?” Chayne asked of him.
“Yes, monsieur. I have crossed Mont Blanc once that way. I shall be very glad to go again. We shall be the first to cross for two years. If only the weather holds.”
“Do you doubt that?” asked Chayne, anxiously. The morning had broken clear, the day was sunny and cloudless.
“I think there may be wind to-morrow,” he replied, raising his face and judging by signs unappreciable to other than the trained eyes of a guide. “But we will try, eh, monsieur?” he cried, recovering his spirits. “We will try. We will be the first on the Brenva ridge for two years.”
But there Chayne knew him to be wrong. There was another party somewhere on the great ridge at this moment. “Had it happened?” he asked himself. “How was it to happen?” What kind of an accident was it to be which could take place with a guide however worthless, and which would leave no suspicion resting on Garratt Skinner? There would be no cutting of the rope. Of that he felt sure. That method might do very well for a melodrama, but actually—no! Garratt Skinner would have a better plan than that. And indeed he had, a better plan and a simpler one, a plan which not merely would give to any uttered suspicion the complexion of malignancy, but must even bring Mr. Garratt Skinner honor and great praise. But no idea of the plan occurred either to Sylvia or to Chayne as all through that long hot day they toiled up the ice-fall of the Col du Géant and over the passes. It was evening before they came to the pastures, night before they reached Courmayeur.
There Chayne found full confirmation of his fears. In spite of effort to dissuade them, Garratt Skinner, Walter Hine and Pierre Delouvain had started yesterday for the Brenva climb. They had taken porters with them as far as the sleeping-place upon the glacier rocks. The porters had returned. Chayne sent for them.
“Yes,” they said. “At half past two this morning, the climbing party descended from the rocks on to the ice-fall of the glacier. They should be at the hut at the Grands Mulets now, on the other side of the mountain, if not already in Chamonix. Perhaps monsieur would wish for porters to-morrow.”
“No,” said Chayne. “We mean to try the passage in one day”; and he turned to his guides. “I wish to start at midnight. It is important. We shall reach the glacier by five. Will you be ready?”
And at midnight accordingly he set out by the light of a lantern. Sylvia stood outside the hotel and watched the flame diminish to a star, dance for a little while, and then go out. For her, as for all women, the bad hour had struck when there was nothing to do but to sit and watch and wait. Perhaps her husband, after all, was wrong, she said to herself, and repeated the phrase, hoping that repetition would carry conviction to her heart.
But early on that morning Chayne had sure evidence that he was right. For as he, Simond and André Droz were marching in single file through the thin forest behind the chalets of La Brenva, a shepherd lad came running down toward them. He was so excited that he could hardly tell the story with which he was hurrying to Courmayeur. Only an hour before he had seen, high up on the Brenva ridge, a man waving a signal of distress. Both Simond and Droz discredited the story. The distance was too great; the sharpest eyes could not have seen so far. But Chayne believed, and his heart sank within him. The puppet and Garratt Skinner—what did they matter? But he turned his eyes down toward Courmayeur. It was Sylvia upon whom the blow would fall.
“The story cannot be true,” cried Simond.
But Chayne bethought him of another day long ago, when a lad had burst into the hotel at Zermatt and told with no more acceptance for his story of an avalanche which he had seen fall from the very summit of the Matterhorn. Chayne looked at his watch. It was just four o’clock.
“There has been an accident,” he said. “We must hurry.”