THE ELEVATION OF MAN
Next morning the pleasant party gathered in the house of Johann Jossi, upon the Wengern Alp, was broken up. Governor March, his daughter, the sportive maidens and staid maternal head of the house of Judd all winged their way to the chilly marble halls of the Hotel Wilder Mann at Meiringen, while Marcus Hardy and his friend Harford took to themselves provisions, porters, and guides, and set out for parts unknown. Their guide as usual was Melchior Almer, and their general intention, so far at least as they owned any to each other, was to "traversiren" various first-class peaks — that is, to use the summit of a mountain as a pass, and to climb up one side of it and let themselves down the other.
The small, badly-constructed carriages carried off the Americans rapidly enough, and the two young men were left alone on the steps of the hotel. Each avoided the other's eye, for Marcus had been unusually distrait and awkward, and Keith effusive in leave-taking beyond his wont. So each feared the comment of his companion, and both were silent.
Silent they remained until their own preparations were complete, and they set out. Marcus, whose spirits never suffered more than a momentary overcast, was sad for at least ten minutes at the thought of parting with the three girls — though whether the reserved and difficult Ione March or the many conquested and amenable Idalia had made the deepest mark upon his heart, he could not, for the life of him, have told.
Once, however, that he had settled to his stride, and the valleys began to show a tendency to close up behind him and fall back beneath him, the spirits of Marcus the giant returned. And though (as he said repeatedly) he did three times the work of the others, being taller and heavier, and sank to the knee at every step whenever the snow was soft, his jests and mad pranks filled Trüffer, the chief porter, with explosive laughter, and at times even caused a smile to pass over the grave face of Melchior Almer himself.
At their rude shelter that night on the Gleckstein there arose a noise among the mountains, which, as Almer avowed, must have made the devil stir under the ''Pot-lid-of-Hell" — as the guides called the curious black "Hot-place" on the opposite Viescheraarhorn Glacier, to which the ice would not stick. For while Melchior brewed tea and Keith Harford brooded thoughtfully upon the great mass of the Eiger with the cowled Mönch sulking behind it, the lusty madcap Marcus had stripped and plunged into a little glacier lake, into which a tongue of ice projected at one end, while at the other its pale green waters lapped against a barrier of bare rock. Through this he wallowed and kicked his turbulent way, his white rind gleaming like warm ivory amid the pallor of the surrounding snows.
As he splashed this way and that, Marcus kept calling out how delicious the coolness was, and endeavouring to persuade his companions to join him in the invigorating refreshment of his bath. But Keith Harford took no notice of him at all, and Melchior only came to the door of the hut with the frying-pan in his hand long enough to watch him tolerantly for a moment. "Gott, what a kerl!" said Melchior; "one never knows what these English will do next."
Marcus succeeded better, however, with Trüffer, who, seduced at last by his wilful misrepresentations, stripped and plunged into the lake, while Marcus, affecting uncontrollable ecstasy, hung by his chin to the tongue of ice, and allowed his long legs to be carried beneath the glacier.
As soon as Trüffer realised that the water was ice-cold and bit like frozen metal, he emitted a yell which echoed round and round the circling mountains, and incontinently endeavoured to get out again. But his deceiver caught him by the leg and he returned to his cold bath with a splash like that of a seal diving from a rock.
“Shut up, will you!" growled Marcus in his ear; "let us persuade the other fellows that this is just famous, and get them to come in beside us."
But Trüffer continued to give vent to yell upon yell, being by this time convinced that the "mad Englishman" meant to drown him. At last, after many failures, he succeeded in getting on shore, though the enemy harassed his rear with blows and lumps of ice as he scrambled out, and then swam up and down explaining how delightful was the prickling sensation of the glacier water on the skin, and adjuring the others not to believe that cowardly fellow Trüffer. But the appearance of the porter, whose hide shone with the raw-red of boiled beetroot, was proof more convincing than any of these interested protestations. Whereupon Marcus, being unable to find more victims, resignedly resumed his clothing, declaring that the spirit of enterprise and adventure was dead in the land.
All that week Harford and Hardy remained in the fastnesses of the central Oberland, making excursions in all directions, and either descending upon villages for additional provisions, or dispatching Trüffer in the morning to bring up a supply to their camp amidst the snows.
* * * * *
It was the evening of Saturday, and the marketing peasants were already in their Sunday best, when the party descended by the fairy azure stairway of the Rosenlaui Glacier into the swart pine woods above Meiringen.
Keith Harford and his friend walked in front, carrying their "rüksacks" guide-fashion, with broad canvas straps passed behind their shoulders and crossed over their breasts. The Englishmen plodded on silently, but behind them Melchior and Trüffer kept up a brisk fire of question and ralliment with the broad-faced, tightly-snooded peasant matrons and maids who were driving in the cattle, or carrying the milk from the higher pastures to the home dairy in the valley.
Suddenly, at the recurrence of a name, Keith Harford turned about.
"What did that man say, Melchior," he asked the chief guide.
The peasant, who had spoken in Oberlandish patois, dropped back into the shadow of the pines, so soon as he noticed that what he said was partly understood by Melchior's Herr. The guide seemed unwilling to tell; but at last he said, "This man, Johann Imfeld of Mannlichen, told me that the young American has discharged his guides for being much drunk on the mountain, and that they are to have their certificates and character books taken away from them by the Guides' Commission of the Swiss Alpine Club!"
Keith Harford stared at Melchior as if that grave man had suddenly gone mad.
"What guides, and on which mountain?" he asked hurriedly.
"The man said Christian Schlegel with Peter Jossi — they were drunk on the Eiger."
Marcus gasped. He was about to break out in vehement denial; but with a quick gesture Harford laid his hand on his arm to restrain him from speaking.
"And do you believe this, Melchior?" continued Harford.
Melchior first shrugged his shoulders. Then he shook his head, turning and facing him so that the two English and the two Swiss were face to face.
"I do not know," he answered gravely, "it might have been. There are, alas! few enough of us whom you can trust all night with an unsealed cognac bottle. And Peter, poor fellow, as is too well known, has his failings. But it matters little whether they were drunk or not. Their word will go for nothing before the Alpine Verein if their Herr only swears strongly enough. For, of course, it is to their interest to deny such a thing. Poor fellows, they will have to become ordinary porters. They will carry the ice-axe no longer; and that foolish lad Christian has a large family."
"But heavens and earth, I tell you I saw them with my own eyes!" Marcus was beginning furiously.
But again Keith Harford's hand fell on his arm.
"Wait," he said in English; "don't say a word more now! We will work the thing out together to-night!”
* * * * *
The goldenest hour of evening had come. The paths played hide-and-seek with the pine-trees, and the slanting western sunbeams crissed-crossed both rocks and red boles with intricate patterns of orange light and purple shadow.
In the hollows of the woodland paths, worn concave by ascending and descending generations, the drifted pine-needles were thick and soft to the feet as piled Turkish carpets. The aromatic wildness of dew-laden air sifted through upland fir-woods cooled the throat and lungs and freshened the sunburnt skin of the travellers.
Keith Harford and Marcus were thus descending the last windings of the road beneath the falls, one a little behind the other, the guides still further back, as is the wont of tired Alpinists, when they came upon two girls linked closely arm-in-arm, and walking somewhat apart, a young man in attendance. Ione March was bareheaded, and carried her hat in her hand, swinging it daintily by the brim, while Idalia wore a wide soft mushroom of Siennese straw, which flapped about her face, and by its vagaries added value to her mirth-loving eyes, and to the piquant aspirations of her nose. It was characteristic of the nature of Ione March's engagement that she studiously kept Idalia between her and her not too fervent lover.
"The Beast in Spats, by all that's unholy!" growled Marcus, as they hove in sight. The young men, being yet travel-stained and unshorn, were about to lift their hats and pass on. But Idalia could not permit such a wicked waste of the opportunities afforded her by a merciful providence. So she frankly held out her hand to each of the climbers in turn, beginning with Keith. Ione contented herself with bowing quietly, while the Beast in Spats stood sulkily apart and switched the dust off his boots with a leafy twig, expressing protest, insolence, and discontent in every line of his figure.
"How funny you both look!" cried Idalia. "Mr. Hardy, your nose is peeling just like an onion, in five distinct coats — all different, as they say in the advertisements of stamp packets. No wonder we are warm; I never knew before we were done up in so many coverings. But Mr. Harford is only burnt nicely brown all over, like the crust of a well-done pie. And have you had a lovely time upon the mountains? I am sure you must, but for your guides. Ugh! how uncomfortable it must feel to be all alone with such horrid people."
“Our guide, Melchior Almer," said Keith Harford gently, "is a sort of prince in his country. He is also the crowned head of all guides, and we count it a high honour to be allowed to accompany him."
"How splendid!" cried Idalia, turning mischievously to include her brother in the conversation. "Poor Kearney here has quite another story to tell. His guides behaved abominably, and it was all he could do to get them down off the mountain alive."
Keith Harford turned and looked steadily at Mr. Kearney Judd.
"Which mountain, sir, may I ask?" he said gravely.
"Oh, the Eiger," growled the sulky ex-mountaineer.
He was not in the best of humours at any rate, and it was simply insufferable of Idalia to insist upon carrying on a conversation with this pair of uncouth trampers.
"And what have you been doing all this time?" said Ione to Marcus, speaking for the first time. She felt the insult of her betrothed's manner and tone more keenly than Idalia, both because she was less inured to Kearney's little ways by custom, and because she did not, like that experimental maiden, cast her fly by all waters.
The giant (susceptible youth!) blushed to his brows.
"Oh, nothing very big!" he stammered; "just staying up there and making little trips, you know, trying for new passes, and running over peaks and things!"
"It sounds precisely like taking a penny bus," said Idalia. "And do you have it all put in the papers?"
"Well, no; not exactly," said Marcus; "but sometimes for a lark my friend writes yarns to read to the Club fellows in London. And then they all get up one after another, and say that he is a blithering idiot who has got his routes all wrong. That any baby could better his 'times,' and that each of them knows at least three better ways of getting up."
"What Kearney does isn't a bit like that," said Idalia; "he gets yards and yards put in the papers, and — "
"If we do not get on, it will be too dark to see the falls," interrupted the ex-mountaineer, turning on his heels and abruptly leaving the party without salutation or farewell of any kind.
But as if to mark her sense of the omission of her lover, Ione March shook hands first with Marcus and afterwards with Keith Harford. "Good-night!" was all she said to the latter. But she allowed the dark sweetness of her eyes to rest on his face just that fraction of time which is longer than a glance, and which is not yet long enough to be a look.
Meanwhile Idalia was finishing Marcus Hardy's first lesson. With the quick instinct of the born flirt, she knew in a moment that Keith Harford was more attracted by Ione than by herself: a belief which she expressed with her usual crystalline clearness and directness that night in Ione's bedroom.
"He's your meat, my dear! I'm not talking rubbish. I know. Never mind how, but I know. Now do have some fun with him, or he’ll be dragging my nice giant away before he makes up his mind to speak — and that, you know, is more than half the fun. You simply must be nice to Mr. Harford. I'm sure Kearney won't mind. And you know he's just your sort. If you were a man you would pull your moustache just the way he does, so melancholy and dreamy and don't care a — ahem! Oh, it's you, is it, Astoria? Ione and I were just talking about the young Englishmen. I wish there was one left for you. But there isn't, for Ione and I have tossed for first choice. Happy thought! You can have one of the drunken guides to play with. It will be no end of fun to reform him. You know you are always reforming somebody, 'Storia."
(Here Astoria turned on her heel.)
"Now don't go off in the huff! Listen to me, Miss Judd, from New York City. I am quite serious."
(The more sober-minded sister wavered whether to remain or go out.)
"And then, you know, you could read a paper at the next meeting of the Women's Society for the Elevation of Man after we go home. Think how something of this kind would fetch them — 'How I elevated a tipsy Swiss guide’ by Astoria Judd! "
"It's very much easier to make fun of serious subjects, than to be willing to give time and money to help a good cause along!" said Astoria sententiously. "The Society for the Elevation of Man has already effected much. It has placed nice temperance cafes all over the business parts of the city, where, instead of spending their time in odious billiard-saloons and horrid reeking bars, men can have cheap and well-cooked meals, served by nice girls in pretty uniform caps, and so be made more amenable to the refining influences of domestic life. But you don't care anything for that!"
"Oh, but I do!" cried Idalia, eagerly clapping her hands. "I am dead nuts on the elevation of man. I believe in it just as much as you do."
"And pray what have you ever done for the Cause?" sneered Astoria. "You never do anything but carry on disgracefully with every single decent-looking man who comes in your way!"
Idalia clasped her hands and raised her eyes to high heaven as if to call upon it to attest her injured innocence.
"Listen to her, Ione," she cried. "I waste my time, my energy, my soulful aspirations, and my best pieces of poetry on the most unpromising material—all for the good of the Cause, and she calls it 'carrying on.' Carrying on! Only a low mind would wallow in such unfounded accusations. Any one truly high-minded (like you, Ione) would see at once that I do it solely for their good — just to elevate them, in fact!"
By this time the young woman was talking so fast that her words tumbled one over the other.
"Now I put it to you, Astoria—I leave it to your honesty to say if this is not true. After a month of me you simply wouldn't know them — the very rawest and most base-bally of them? There was Billy Pitt — you remember Billy? Did he walk the same, speak the same, dress the same, after I had done with him? I found him a boor fresh from Princeton football field, with the sawdust sticking in star-spangled wads all over his snaky tresses. I left him a man and a brother!"
"You led him on, and threw him over most shamefully, that's how you elevated him," said Astoria, with extreme severity.
"Listen to the voice of the scoffer," continued the unabashed Idalia; "she's only jealous because she didn't get him to reform herself. But he had a much better time with me. Indeed, he always said so himself. 'Storia would have taken him to leagues and meetings, till the poor boy couldn't stand. Astoria is a perfect rake on meetings. But Billy could lead the German, choose the right flowers, make love, brush his hair, wear his clothes, keep his shoulders square, look you in the face and speak up like a little man, all long before I got through with him. He wasn't grateful much at the time — not to speak of, perhaps. He suffered some in order to be beautiful. But look at him now! Now you better believe I know what I 'm talking about. I don't go to meetings, but I’ll elevate six men to your one, Astoria; yes, and race you from the word 'Go!' — Ione to be referee and timekeeper. Ten in two years, and not an enemy among the lot, though one or two were a little sore at first. That's not a bad record — and all the fun besides! But Billy was the flower of the flock. Now he has gone into politics, and is the first really nice Congressman that ever was. And when he stands for President, the women of America will just elect him straight away, right from the drop of the flag! And, as Father of his Country, Billy will see old G. W., and raise him to the limit every time! So don't you talk any more to me about the Elevation of Man, 'Storia Judd!"
But Astoria was gone, and the door had shut with a slam.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.