About the same time, in their pine-built barracks of the night, Marcus was putting a question to Keith Harford. "Now that's all very well; but what are you going to do about it?"
"I think I shall first speak to Governor March," said Harford.
"Nonsense!" said Marcus emphatically. "That is as much as to give away all we know. Let the fellow have it hot, and in a way he will remember to his dying day."
"We must first be sure that he is guilty," suggested Harford.
"Guilty! Why, isn't he guilty? Didn't we see him with our own eyes? What more do you want?" cried Marcus as vehemently as if he were on the eve of committing a personal assault.
"I'm not exactly deaf," pleaded Harford; "and if you can be reasonable for one lucid moment, why should the son of a multi-millionaire take away the character of two poor Swiss guides?"
"If I can be reasonable — Why, man, don't you know? He had engaged them for the entire season at a howling figure. And when he got enough of the high mountains — when he found the south face of the Eiger wasn't any sort of picnic, he wanted badly to get out of his agreement. So, as the easiest way, down he comes and swears till all is blue that his guides were both drunk on the mountain."
Harford shook his head. He could not believe in the possibility of such conduct. Nevertheless, as it proved, the words of Marcus contained a pretty fair statement of the actions and intentions of Mr. Kearney Judd. That hereditary financier knew the value of money, and was perfectly well aware that in this matter his word would be taken before that of a couple of guides, whose self-interest would discount their denial of his statements, and whose silence would be taken for the sullen consciousness of guilt.
"And I’ll tell you what, Harford," Marcus went on. "There's that deuced pretty girl he's engaged to. If we smite the beast hard enough and openly enough, she's not the sort to put up with a sweep like that. If we let him have it good and straight, so that he will think he's struck an avalanche, I bet four to one we smash the March-Judd engagement all to bits."
"That," said Harford exceedingly deliberately, "is the very reason why I cannot interfere."
"Well," said Marcus, "if you are going to be so hanged top-lofty and scrupulous, put on your cap and step down the road. And if in half an hour I don't show you a dozen very excellent reasons why you should interfere — why, I’ll give you my word you can boot me back up the village street right to the top of the hotel steps!"
A moment more and Marcus and Harford, having found their caps, stood in the long white highway, with its thin straggling trees — poplar, beech, birch, and pine — mingling as in a borderland between two climates. It was still a sort of golden dusk, the mountains retaining an after-blush of the rich carmine glow which an hour ago had illuminated their tops and filled the valley with strange luminous haze.
"Come on!" cried Marcus, striking into his quick homing stride, as soon as ever they drew out of the blazing circle of lights and pedestaled glass balls which surrounded the hotel fronts, "pit-a-pat it down the road, me bhoy!"
And so, with the mountains looking down upon them, and the overhanging cornice of a stray snow-crest far aloft glowing a strange, forlorn, amethystine blue (which vaguely reminded Keith Harford of the eyes of Ione March) they made straight into the country, tracking from one rugged pathway to another, climbing low walls, and striding stake-fences as at a steeple-chase.
Most of the chalets were dark. In one or two a light was still flickering, showing where a douce goodwife had not yet finished the preparations for the frugal family supper. But in most the peasants were already asleep, and a gentle gust of snoring wafted out from them like the muffled thunder of a land of dreams.
For it was high summer, when the days are long for labour, and the nights short for rest in the Oberland.
It was quite in keeping that Keith Harford, a man of strong impulses, but much abstraction and reserve of character, should never ask his companion where he was taking him. Presently, however, the two young men stopped at a chalet built by the end of a little wooden bridge which spanned the torrent beneath and rang hollow under their feet as they stepped upon it. The dash of the waters came soothingly up to Keith Harford's ear. He stopped and looked over. He could see the grey-green phosphorescence of the glacier stream glance here and darken there, cabined and tormented between the black rocks. Lower still, a thinly covered tooth of stone jutting up the stream sent out a jet of white spume straight into the air. The noise of the waters in his ears carried away his thoughts. Keith Harford would very contentedly have stood there all night with his arms folded on the slight rail of cloven pine, had Marcus not caught him by the elbow and drawn him away by main force.
Ascending a little flight of roughly hewn wooden steps, they came upon the unmistakable odour of a seasoned Swiss chalet, a perfume compact of ancient wood-fires, smoke-dried rafters, airless rooms, fusty bed-quilts, onion strings, aromatic herbs tied in hour-glass bundles, and, above everything and overwhelming everything, the keen breath of upland pastures, saving, sweetening, and vivifying all. They stumbled noisily in without knocking, the bulk of Marcus the giant taking the breadth of the passage, Keith following more easily in his wake.
Going quickly, like one who knows his way, Marcus dashed open a door to his right, whereupon Keith found himself suddenly in the wide, dusky house-place of an Oberland chalet. Red ashes glowed on the hearth. A girl of eleven, with long hair tossed in gipsy fashion over her neck, was breaking bits of green pine knots and tossing them on the embers. Each fragment hissed, spat, shot up momentarily into a clear spurt of flame, and then died down again to dull red.
"Christian!" cried Marcus, as the gloom of the small-windowed house shut suddenly about them, as it were throttling them after the largeness of the night.
A man who had been sitting upon a low chair, with his head sunk between his palms, raised his face. A larger piece than usual of the girl's pine fuel shed through the house a momentary radiance clear as a lamp.
Keith Harford looked long at the fallen-in cheeks of the guide. Christian Schlegel seemed older and more gaunt than he had ever seen him before. His blonde locks appeared suddenly to have become bleached and grey. His coat was off. His arms, bare to the elbow, lay hairy and corded upon his knees.
“What is the matter, Christian?" said Marcus; "tell me, is all this true?"
For a while Christian did not answer; but his wife, with a babe on her arm, broke instantly into shrill denials and bitter accusations against all foreign Herrs, as being the ruin of the men of the valleys. Stirred by her vehemence the infant awoke and feebly joined its outcries to her denunciations.
The sound appeared to jar upon Christian. He raised his hand and brought it down with thunderous force upon the little "dresser" of clean-scoured pine, on which sundry dishes of green and white ware glistened.
"Be quiet, woman!" he cried. And for very fear and surprise both mother and child instantly fell silent.
Then the man looked long at Marcus, studying his face before speaking. "I think you are a friend," he said at last, in the broad-vowelled German speech of the Oberland valleys; "yes, I do think you are a friend. What have you come to hear? There is nothing good to tell. They have taken away my Führerbuch, my papers, my testimonials. I am fit for nothing now but to go and work with the Italians upon the railways -"
"And he was so good a guide, my Christian, so careful, so strong," cried the wife, again breaking silence, "and only takes drink a very little, even on holidays, never once on the mountains. And that day there was not one drop — not one single drop. For he and Peter had to work hard to drag the Herr up but a little way! Also, we are respectable, and have paid our taxes to the commune regularly for twenty years!"
"Hold your tongue, wife!" cried Christian, but not so harshly as before; “of what use is all this? These gentlemen were not that day upon the Eiger, and there is but Peter's word and mine against that of the rich American Herr."
Then Keith Harford came forward, and laid his hand gently on the guide's shoulder.
"Be of good courage," he said. "For the present say nothing to any one. Do not stir from your house till they send for you to go before the Court of the Alpine Club. And we will be there to see that no harm befall you."
"May God bless you, Herr!" broke in his wife; "they will perhaps listen to you. You will not see them do wrong to my Christian?"
"I promise you they shall not," said Keith very quietly; and somehow the tone of his voice was more comfort to the woman than the gold which Marcus placed in her hand.
"Well," said Marcus, when they found themselves out again in the dusk of the night, "have you had enough, or would you like to go along to the cottage of little Peter? He has nine children."
Keith Harford was silent for full five minutes. "Let us go over to Grindelwald at once," he said. "I have a friend there with whom we ought to consult."
Marcus, ever ready for adventure, caught eagerly at the idea.
"I know a path through the pine woods," he said; "it is difficult to find even in daylight, but if we can hit it, it will cut off a couple of hours."
"It is too dark to see in the wood," said Keith; "we shall lose time."
"Let us buy half a dozen penny dips!" cried Marcus, who scented an experience. And Keith had had too many instances of the practical pioneer character of his companion's expedients when in difficulty to enter a faintest caveat. So, without going back to their inn, the pair struck into the village again, winding their way rapidly among intricate lanes and alleys, till presently they were knocking at the door of the general dealer (not he of the English stores and English prices, but the worthy villager who supplies to native Grindelwald the staples of life and luxury).
The merchant was already in bed, and muttered lusty anathemas at being disturbed. But the cheerful apostrophes of Marcus, and the devil's tattoo he beat on the panels of the door with antiphonal knuckle and toe attracting the attention of the neighbours, the worthy chandler was compelled to arise and come out upon his balcony, clad most unholily all in yellow flannel, and with a red night-cap stuck awry on his head.
"Six candles—devil's nonsense! What do a couple of mad Englishmen want with six candles in the middle of the night? Is it not enough that they run the mountains all day? Must their father, the Evil One, permit them to come rousing honest men out of their beds? But the price shall make up for it! Yes, the price shall make up for it!"
Yet, after all, under the influence of the cheery and irrepressible bonhomie of Marcus, and, perhaps, also owing to Frau Ortmann's opinion of the good looks of his silent and thoughtful companion, the overcharges (or compensation for disturbances) did not amount to more than a couple of small nickel coins. So presently, with a pocket full of candles and three boxes of lucifer matches, Marcus was leading the way into the forest above Meiringen, an alert happiness showing jauntily in every line of his body. For Marcus was a born pioneer. From a child he was ever most happy in planning and carrying out his plans. Keith Harford dreamed, thought, and in general cultivated melancholy like a fine art. To him action was generally secondary, mostly vulgar, and nearly always superfluous. Now, however, he was pushed forward by the shrill misery of the wife of Christian Schlegel, and perhaps as much as anything by the jarred and jangled temper shown by that usually good-tempered Samson of the Hasli Thal.
As they struck into the forest, the trunks of the pines shot up above them far out of their ken, huge and black, striking through the sky; while the path wound circuitously among them. Presently Marcus stubbed his toe against a rock, and, as he stood looking over and nursing it, he saw the lights of the hotel Wilder Mann shining three or four hundred feet beneath them.
"It is time to light up our candles," he said, "if we do not want to fetch up all standing on the roofs of the village, in as many pieces as the twelve-times divided lady in the Bible!"
So he groped for a forked branch, whose extremities he split cunningly open with his knife-of-a-hundred-blades, so that they held a couple of candles commodiously in their notches.
In another cleft lower down he placed a curved piece of bark, so as to shade the flame from his eyes and cast the light full upon the path. There was not a breath of air stirring. The flame of the candle rose straight up in its amphitheatre of barken lantern. The long mossy beards upon the trees hung limp and still. The only sound was the deep diapason of the torrent bringing the latest news from the world of glacier and avalanche overhead. A dog howled fitfully in some upland farm, and was silenced with blows, which changed his long ululatrious baying into short, snapping yelps. Marcus laughed aloud in sympathy with the castigator.
"That is just what we are going to do," he said; "the Beast in Spats bays at honester men. We will make him yelp like a twice-whipped cur."
But Keith Harford was silent. The subject did not amuse him. He was trying to decide whether the eyes of Ione March were sapphire, like the sea, or amethyst, like the depths of the evening sky.
And before them both, as they ascended the darkling forest path, Marcus Hardy's improvised lantern burned like a steady star in the hushed and windless night.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.