“What is the use?” he whispered. “We shall all die to-night. . . . I have a wife and family. . . . Let us eat what there is to eat and then die,” and drowsily repeating his words, he fell asleep. Garratt Skinner, however, roused him, and drowsily he helped to clear the ledge. Then Walter Hine was placed in the middle that he might get what warmth and shelter was to be had, the rope was hitched over a spike of rock behind, so that if any one fell asleep he might not fall off, and Delouvain and Skinner took their places. By this time darkness had come. They sat upon the narrow ledge with their backs to the rock and the steep snow-slopes falling away at their feet. Far down a light or two glimmered in the chalets of La Brenva.
Garratt Skinner emptied the Rücksack on his knees.
“Let us see what food we have,” he said. “We made a mistake in not bringing more. But Pierre was so certain that we should reach Chamonix to-night.”
“We shall die to-night,” said Pierre.
“Nonsense,” said Garratt Skinner. “We are not the first party which has been caught by the night.”
Their stock of food was certainly low. It consisted of a little bread, a tin of sardines, a small pot of jam, some cold bacon, a bag of acid-drops, a couple of cakes of chocolate, and a few biscuits.
“We must keep some for the morning,” he said. “Don’t fall asleep, Wallie! You had better take off your boots and muffle your feet in the Rücksack. It will keep them warmer and save you from frost-bite. You might as well squeeze the water out of your stockings too.”
Garratt Skinner waked Hine from his drowsiness and insisted that his advice should be followed. It would be advisable that it should be known afterward in Courmayeur that he had taken every precaution to preserve his companion’s life. He took off his own stockings and squeezed the water out, replaced them, and laced on his boots. For to him, too, the night would bring some risk. Then the three men ate their supper. A very little wine was left in the gourd which Garratt Skinner had carried on his back, and he filled it up with snow and thrust it inside his shirt that it might melt the sooner.
“You have your brandy flask, Wallie, but be sparing of it. Brandy will warm you for the moment, but it leaves you more sensitive to the cold than you were before. That’s a known fact. And don’t drink too much of this snow-water. It may make you burn inside. At least so I have been told,” he added.
Hine drank and passed the bottle to Pierre, who took it with his reiterated moan: “What’s the use? We shall all die to-night. Why should a poor guide with a wife and family be tempted to ascend mountains. I will tell you something, monsieur,” he cried suddenly across Walter Hine. “I am not fond of the mountains. No, I am not fond of them!” and he leaned back and fell asleep.
“Better not follow his example, Wallie. Keep awake! Slap your limbs!”
Above the three men the stars came out very clear and bright; the tiny lights in the chalets far below disappeared one by one; the cold became intense. At times Garratt Skinner roused his companions, and holding each other by the arm, they rose simultaneously to their feet and stamped upon the ledge. But every movement hurt them, and after a while Walter Hine would not.
“Leave me alone,” he said. “To move tortures me!”
Garratt Skinner had his pipe and some tobacco. He lit, shading the match with his coat; and then he looked at his watch.
“What time is it? Is it near morning?” asked Hine, in a voice which was very feeble.
“A little longer to wait,” said Garratt Skinner, cheerfully.
The hands marked a quarter to ten.
And afterward they grew very silent, except for the noise which they made in shivering. Their teeth chattered with the chill, they shook in fits which lasted for minutes, Walter Hine moaned feebly. All about them the world was bound in frost; the cold stars glittered overhead; the mountains took their toll of pain that night. Yet there was one among those three perched high on a narrow ledge of rock amongst the desolate heights, who did not regret. Just for a night like this Garratt Skinner had hoped. Walter Hine, weak of frame and with little stamina, was exposed to the rigors of a long Alpine night, thirteen thousand feet above the level of the sea, with hardly any food, and no hope of rescue for yet another day and yet another night. There could be but one end to it. Not until to-morrow would any alarm at their disappearance be awakened either at Chamonix or at Courmayeur. It would need a second night before help reached them—so Garratt Skinner had planned it out. There could be but one end to it. Walter Hine would die. There was a risk that he himself might suffer the same fate—he was not blind to it. He had taken the risk knowingly, and with a certain indifference. It was the best plan, since, if he escaped alive, suspicion could not fall on him. Thus he argued, as he smoked his pipe with his back to the rock and waited for the morning.
At one o’clock Walter Hine began to ramble. He took Garratt Skinner and Pierre Delouvain for Captain Barstow and Archie Parminter, and complained that it was ridiculous to sit up playing poker on so cold a night; and while in his delirium he rambled and moaned, the morning began to break. But with the morning came a wind from the north, whirling the snow like smoke about the mountain-tops, and bitingly cold. Garratt Skinner with great difficulty stood up, slowly and with pain stretched himself to his full height, slapped his thighs, stamped with his feet, and then looked for a long while at his victim, without remorse, and without satisfaction. He stooped and sought to lift him. But Hine was too stiff and numbed with the cold to be able to move. In a little while Pierre Delouvain, who had fallen asleep, woke up. The day was upon them now, cold and lowering.
“We must wait for the sun,” said Garratt Skinner. “Until that has risen and thawed us it will not be safe to move.”
Pierre Delouvain looked about him, worked the stiffened muscles of his limbs and groaned.
“There will be little sun to-day,” he said. “We shall all die here.”
Garratt Skinner sat down again and waited. The sun rose over the rocks of Mont Maudit, but weak, and yellow as a guinea. Garratt Skinner then tied his coat to his ice-ax, and standing out upon a rock waved it this way and that.
“No one will see it,” whimpered Pierre; and indeed Garratt Skinner would never have waved that signal had he not thought the same.
“Perhaps—one never knows,” he said. “We must take all precautions, for the day looks bad.”
The sunlight, indeed, only stayed upon the mountain-side long enough to tantalize them with vain hopes of warmth. Gray clouds swept up low over the crest of Mont Blanc and blotted it out. The wind moaned wildly along the slopes. The day frowned upon them sullen and cold with a sky full of snow.
“We will wait a little longer,” said Garratt Skinner, “then we must move.”
He looked at the sky. It seemed to him now very probable that he would lose the desperate game which he had been playing. He had staked his life upon it. Let the snow come and the mists, he would surely lose his stake. Nevertheless he set himself to the task of rousing Walter Hine.
“Leave me alone,” moaned Walter Hine, and he struck feebly at his companions as they lifted him on to his feet.
“Stamp your feet, Wallie,” said Garratt Skinner. “You will feel better in a few moments.”
They held him up, but he repeated his cry. “Leave me alone!” and the moment they let him go he sank down again upon the ledge. He was overcome with drowsiness, the slightest movement tortured him.
Garratt Skinner looked up at the leaden sky.
“We must wait till help comes,” he said,
Delouvain shook his head.
“It will not come to-day. We shall all die here. It was wrong, monsieur, to try the Brenva ridge. Yes, we shall die here”; and he fell to blubbering like a child.
“Could you go down alone?” Garratt Skinner asked.
“There is the glacier to cross, monsieur.”
“I know. That is the risk. But it is cold and there is no sun. The snow-bridges may hold.”
Pierre Delouvain hesitated. Here it seemed to him was certain death. But if he climbed down the ice-arête, the snow-slopes, and the rocks below, if the snow-bridges held upon the glacier, there would be life for one of the three. Pierre Delouvain had little in common with that loyal race of Alpine guides who hold it as their most sacred tradition not to return home without their patrons.
“Yes, it is our one hope,” he said; and untying himself with awkward fumbling fingers from the kinked rope, and coiling the spare rope about his shoulders, he went down the slope. During the night the steps had frozen and in many places it was necessary to recut them. He too was stiff with the long vigil. He moved slowly, with numbed and frozen limbs. But as his ax rose and fell, the blood began to burn in the tips of his fingers, to flow within his veins; he went more and more firmly. For a long way Garratt Skinner held him in sight. Then he turned back to Walter Hine upon the ledge, and sat beside him. Garratt Skinner’s strength had stood him in good stead. He filled his pipe and lit it, and watched beside his victim. The day wore on slowly. At times Garratt Skinner rubbed Hine’s limbs and stamped about the ledge to keep some warmth within himself. Walter Hine grew weaker and weaker. At times he was delirious; at times he came to his senses.
“You leave me,” he whispered once. “You have been a good friend to me. You can do no more. Just leave me here, and save yourself.”
Garratt Skinner made no answer. He just looked at Hine curiously—that was all. That was all. It was a curious thing to him that Hine should display an unexpected manliness—almost a heroism. It could not be pleasant even to contemplate being left alone upon these windy and sunless heights to die. But actually to wish it!
“How did you come by so much fortitude?” he asked; and to his astonishment, Walter Hine replied:
“I learnt it from you, old man.”
Garratt Skinner gave him some of the brandy and listened to a portrait of himself, described in broken words, which he was at some pains to recognize. Walter Hine had been seeking to model himself upon an imaginary Garratt Skinner, and thus, strangely enough, had arrived at an actual heroism. Thus would Garratt Skinner have bidden his friends leave him, only in tones less tremulous, and very likely with a laugh, turning back, as it were, to snap his fingers as he stepped out of the world. Thus, therefore, Walter Hine sought to bear himself.
“Curious,” said Garratt Skinner with interest, but with no stronger feeling at all. “Are you in pain, Wallie?”
“We must wait. Perhaps help will come!”
The day wore on, but what the time was Garratt Skinner could not tell. His watch and Hine’s had both stopped with the cold, and the dull, clouded sky gave him no clue. The last of the food was eaten, the last drop of the brandy drunk. It was bitterly cold. If only the snow would hold off till morning! Garratt Skinner had only to wait. The night would come and during the night Walter Hine would die. And even while the thought was in his mind, he heard voices. To his amazement, to his alarm, he heard voices! Then he laughed. He was growing light-headed. Exhaustion, cold and hunger were telling their tale upon him. He was not so young as he had been twenty years before. But to make sure he rose to his knees and peered down the slope. He had been mistaken. The steep snow-slopes stretched downward, wild and empty. Here and there black rocks jutted from them; a long way down four black stones were spaced; there was no living thing in that solitude. He sank back relieved. No living thing except himself, and perhaps his companion. He looked at Hine closely, shook him, and Hine groaned. Yes, he still lived—for a little time he still would live. Garratt Skinner gathered in his numbed palm the last pipeful of tobacco in his pouch and, spilling the half of it—his hands so shook with cold, his fingers were so clumsy—he pressed it into his pipe and lit it. Perhaps before it was all smoked out—he thought. And then his hallucination returned to him. Again he heard voices, very faint, and distant, in a lull of the wind.
It was weakness, of course, but he started up again, this time to his feet, and as he stood up his head and shoulders showed clear against the white snow behind him. He heard a shout—yes, an undoubted shout. He stared down the slope and then he saw. The four black stones had moved, were nearer to him—they were four men ascending. Garratt Skinner turned swiftly toward Walter Hine, reached for his ice-ax, grasped it and raised it, Walter Hine looked at him with staring, stupid eyes, but raised no hand, made no movement. He, too, was conscious of an hallucination. It seemed to him that his friend stood over him with a convulsed and murderous face, in which rage strove with bitter disappointment, but that he held his ax by the end with the adz-head swung back above his head to give greater force to the blow, and that while he poised it there came a cry from the confines of the world, and that upon that cry his friend dropped the ax, and stooping down to him murmured: “There’s help quite close, Wallie!”
Certainly those words were spoken—that at all events was no hallucination. Walter Hine understood it clearly. For Garratt Skinner suddenly stripped off his coat, passed it round Hine’s shoulders and then, baring his own breast, clasped Hine to it that he might impart to him some warmth from his own body.
Thus they were found by the rescue party; and the story of Garratt Skinner’s great self-sacrifice was long remembered in Courmayeur.
Garratt Skinner watched the men mounting and wondered who they were. He recognized his own guide, Pierre Delouvain, but who were the others, how did they come there on a morning so forbidding? Who was the tall man who walked last but one? And as the party drew nearer, he saw and understood. But he did not change from his attitude. He waited until they were close. Then he and Hilary Chayne exchanged a look.
“You?” said Garratt Skinner.
“Yes—” Chayne paused. “Yes, Mr. Strood,” he said.
And in those words all was said. Garratt Skinner knew that his plan was not merely foiled, but also understood. He stood up and looked about him, and even to Chayne’s eyes there was a dignity in his quiet manner, his patience under defeat. For Garratt Skinner, rogue though he was, the mountains had their message. All through that long night, while he sat by the side of his victim, they had been whispering it. Whether bound in frost beneath the stars, or sparkling to the sun, or gray under a sky of clouds, or buried deep in flakes of whirling snow, they spoke to him always of the grandeur of their indifference. They might be traversed and scaled, but they were unconquered always because they were indifferent. The climber might lie in wait through the bad weather at the base of the peak, seize upon his chance and stand upon the summit with a cry of triumph and derision. The mountains were indifferent. As they endured success, so they inflicted defeat—with a sublime indifference, lifting their foreheads to the stars as though wrapt in some high communion. Something of their patience had entered into Garratt Skinner. He did not deny his name, he asked no question, he accepted failure and he looked anxiously to the sky.
“It will snow, I think.”
They made some tea, mixed it with wine and gave it first of all to Walter Hine. Then they all breakfasted, and set off on their homeward journey, letting Hine down with the rope from step to step.
Gradually Hine regained a little strength. His numbed limbs began to come painfully to life. He began to move slowly of his own accord, supported by his rescuers. They reached the ice-ridge. It had no terrors now for Walter Hine.
“He had better be tied close between Pierre and myself,” said Garratt Skinner. “We came up that way.”
“Between Simond and Droz,” said Chayne, quietly.
“As you will,” said Garratt Skinner with a shrug of the shoulders.
Along the ice-ridge the party moved slowly and safely, carrying Hine between them. As they passed behind the great rock tower at the lower end, the threatened snow began to fall in light flakes.
“Quickly,” said Chayne. “We must reach the chalets to-night.”
They raced along the snow-slopes on the crest of the buttress and turned to the right down the gullies and the ledges on the face of the rock. In desperate haste they descended lowering Walter Hine from man to man, they crawled down the slabs, dropped from shelf to shelf, wound themselves down the gullies of ice. Somehow without injury the snow-slopes at the foot of the rocks were reached. The snow still held off; only now and then a few flakes fell. But over the mountain the wind was rising, it swept down in fierce swift eddies, and drew back with a roar like the sea upon shingle.
“We must get off the glacier before night comes,” cried Chayne, and led by Simond the rescue party went down into the ice-fall. They stopped at the first glacier pool and made Hine wash his hands and feet in the water, to save himself from frost-bite; and thereafter for a little time they rested. They went on again, but they were tired men, and before the rocks were reached upon which two nights before Garratt Skinner had bivouacked, darkness had come. Then Simond justified the praise of Michel Revailloud. With the help of a folding lantern which Chayne had carried in his pocket, he led the way through that bewildering labyrinth with unerring judgment. Great séracs loomed up through the darkness, magnified in size and distorted in shape. Simond went over and round them and under them, steadily, and the rescue party followed. Now he disappeared over the edge of a cliff into space, and in a few seconds his voice rang upward cheerily.
“Follow! It is safe.”
And his ice-ax rang with no less cheeriness. He led them boldly to the brink of abysses which were merely channels in the ice, and amid towering pinnacles which seen, close at hand, were mere blocks shoulder high. And at last the guide at the tail of the rope heard from far away ahead Simond’s voice raised in a triumphant shout.
“The rocks! The rocks!”
With one accord they flung themselves, tired and panting, on the sheltered level of the bivouac. Some sticks were found, a fire was lighted, tea was once more made. Walter Hine began to take heart; and as the flames blazed up, the six men gathered about it, crouching, kneeling, sitting, and the rocks resounded with their laughter.
“Only a little further, Wallie!” said Garratt Skinner, still true to his part.
They descended from the rocks, crossed a level field of ice and struck the rock path along the slope of the Mont de la Brenva.
“Keep on the rope,” said Garratt Skinner. “Hine slipped at a corner as we came up”; and Chayne glanced quickly at him. There were one or two awkward corners above the lower glacier where rough footsteps had been hewn. On one of these Walter Hine had slipped, and Garratt Skinner had saved him—had undoubtedly saved him. At the very beginning of the climb, the object for which it was undertaken was almost fulfilled, and would have been fulfilled but that instinct overpowered Garratt Skinner, and since the accident was unexpected, before he had had time to think he had reached out his hand and saved the life which he intended to destroy.
Along that path Hine was carefully brought to the chalets of La Brenva. The peasants made him as comfortable as they could.
“He will recover,” said Simond. “Oh yes, he will recover. Two of us will stay with him.”
“No need for that,” replied Garratt Skinner. “Thank you very much, but that is my duty since Hine is my friend.”
“I think not,” said Chayne, standing quietly in front of Garratt Skinner. “Walter Hine will be safe enough in Simond’s hands. I want you to return with me to Courmayeur. My wife is there and anxious.”
Garratt Skinner nodded his head.
“I see,” he said, slowly. “Yes.”
He looked round the hut. Simond was going to watch by Hine’s side. He was defeated utterly, and recognized it. Then he looked at Chayne, and smiled grimly.
“On the whole, I am not sorry that you have married my daughter,” he said. “I will come down to Courmayeur. It will be pleasant to sleep in a bed.”
And together they walked down to Courmayeur, which they reached soon after midnight.