Marcus Hardy, genial giant, and for the time being gentleman-at-large, sprawled in a cheap deck-chair with a cushion at the back of his head and a telescope glued to his eye, in front of the " Wengernhof held by Johann Jossi." He was giving vent to sundry explosive little snorts which betokened a high degree of mental excitement,
"Well, — I say — I 'm dashed if ever — no, I never, in all my life!" These incomplete ejaculations were accompanied and unified by a soft whistling hiss between the teeth, which intensified or softened as events more or less interesting passed before the watcher's eyes upon the steep mountain slopes opposite him.
Keith Harford had finished breakfast, and was meditatively gazing at the distant mountains beyond Lauterbrunnen, under the brim of his white wide-awake, which he wore pulled so low over his brows that his tilted cigarette almost touched the brim as he smoked and dreamed in the soft warmth and breathing hush of the morning air.
It might have been supposed that Harford would have been affected by the excitement of his friend. But the fact that he did not even notice his extravagant exclamations of interest, tells much as to the relations of this curiously assorted pair. Keith had long given up paying the slightest attention to the fervent but passing enthusiasms of Marcus. Nor did Marcus expect him to do so. For that genial giant had lived, moved, and had his being in a constant state of high-pressure ebullition during all the years his tutor had known him. Life was full of interest, and every fresh circumstance a perpetual surprise to Marcus Hardy. Whereas in Keith Harford's opinion the period of the Delight of the Eye and the Pride of Life had long passed for him — if indeed it could ever have been said to exist. He therefore minded his junior's brusque exclamations no more than the interruptions of a dog who barks in his sleep, hunting alone in a paradise of rabbits where are neither fences nor rabbit-holes.
But the gasps and snorts of the gazer became rapidly louder and more furious, till at last he sprang to his feet with a jubilant shout.
"I say, Harford," he cried, "do come here and look at this. It's the best game going. Come quick!"
Harford turned a tolerant eye upon his friend, contemplating him much as one may follow the antics of a puppy, in the absence of anything better to do.
"Well, what is it this time?" he said listlessly from underneath his hat brim, without moving; "it can't be another pretty girl over there on the Eiger, surely?"
"Pretty girl be hanged!" cried Marcus ungallantly. "I tell you it's the Beast in Spats! He's stuck up there like a fly on a gumpaper! And I just bet a fiver he is wishing that he never had the eternal cheek to spar up to the south front of the Eiger!"
Keith rose and lounged carelessly towards the telescope. His mercurial friend was already back adjusting it to be ready for his inspection.
"I've got him again — no — yes, there he is! By hokey! Hanged if they ain't haulin' him up by the slack of the rope like a blooming bag of potatoes. You never saw such a degrading spectacle!"
Taking the cigarette between his fingers, Harford bent and looked through the long tube of shining yellow brass which Marcus Hardy had pointed so carefully. He looked into the centre of the gloomy cleft which runs diagonally across the mountain, and, as it were, outlines roughly the basement storey of the Eiger pyramid.
He looked through a rushing, rippled, aerial river at the opposite side of the mountain. The Eiger, with all its rippled snows, storm-tossed crests, gashed crevasses, and terminal moraines, appeared exactly as if it had been seen through running water of a clear brown colour. This airy river was the moisture-bearing Thal wind pouring through the valley towards Grindelwald.
Quite clearly, though with a curious blurring of their outlines, Harford saw three men struggling with the sternest realities of the mighty obelisk of rock. Or, rather, two of them were struggling with a third whose incapacities constituted the real difficulty of the ascent. Keith Harford, who knew with more or less intimacy every guide in the Oberland, was at once able to distinguish the vast tawny form of Christian Schlegel, who, with his feet braced against a rock, was straining with all his might to pull the reluctant body of his "Herr" up the steep slopes of the Eiger.
"They will never get him to the top that way!" cried Harford, interested in spite of himself. "It is already past nine, and at the worst they should have been within a thousand feet of the top by this time!"
"Ah," cried Marcus, who in the interval had run into the hotel and possessed himself of another and smaller glass in order not to miss a particle of the fun, "there's better than that to come. You hold on, my boy, till he goes whack on his face again. That's plummy, if you like!"
And so without moving from their places the two men watched the trio plastered like flies on the steep screes and concave snow slides of the south face of the Eiger.
Presently they saw the traveller fall over exhausted on the snow, lying inert and prone on his face even as Marcus had prophesied,
"That's about enough for him. He's at his prayers now, I guess!" cried Hardy, slapping his knee in ecstasy. "I don't think Spats will take any more Matterhorns in his — this season, at least!"
But presently the two guides were again at the ropes, both this time standing high above the intrepid climber. With their feet firmly braced in crevices, and putting forth all their strength, they hauled their charge up the mountain from six to ten feet at a pull, their bent and straining backs telling of the violence of their exertions.
"That's what I should call an assisted passage," said Keith Harford quietly,
"I’ll wager that fellow has a groove round his waist like the middle of an hourglass for a month after this!" cried Marcus; and forthwith, as his manner was, he shouted with explosive laughter at his own humour.
Both the young men were so eagerly watching the comedy being enacted upon the opposing mountain, that they did not observe a tall, slender girl who had paused behind them, her summer dress of tweed blown becomingly back by the wind. She heard their laughter, or rather that of Marcus, which indeed might very well have silenced the noise of the avalanches round all the circle of the hills. Mostly she kept looking straight before her, but once she allowed her regard to fall upon the unconscious pair with an expression in which a certain personal feeling mingled with a prevailing disdain. But all unconscious the eye of the giant was glued to his telescope. He leaned back in his canvas chair in order more unrestrainedly to enjoy the scene. His disengaged hand slapped his thigh in ever-heightening ecstasy.
"I declare the beggar is hanging on to the Eiger as if it were the mane of a kicking horse. It looks as if he were afraid the mountain would 'buck,' and pitch him into the valley."
Ione March stood a moment quite still, her hand held level and motionless above her brow, and her light wind-blown hair wavering in curls and wisps about her shapely head. Her eyes fell upon Keith Harford as, all at once catching sight of her, he rose to his feet with a flush of annoyance on his handsome face. Something of proud appeal in her attitude held him silent, and he stood staring at the girl, forgetful alike of conventions and proprieties.
But with his brow to the eye-piece of the telescope, Marcus blattered away unconscious, snorting and choking; with half-inarticulate laughter.
"Never saw such a fellow! Keith, I declare he is blubbering like a baby. Hush up, will you, till we hear him howl! We could, if it was not for those blooming avalanches!"
The girl included both the young men in her look of chilling contempt. But her eyes, dark almost as the purple of the zenith on a summer midnight, dwelt longest and most reproachfully upon Keith Harford. And in that lingering moment she seemed to leave something behind her which rankled in his heart, and left him restless and ill content during all the remaining hours of that day.
But again, all unwarned, Marcus took up his parable before Keith could stop him.
"Hi! I say, Harford — look here, they're giving him pints of brandy. I tell you the Beast is feeling pretty rocky — teach him to fool with the Eiger, rigged out in Bond Street spats! — Hello though, where's the fellow gone? — Harford — Keith, I say," shouted Marcus, removing his eye from the telescope. But the grass plot in front of the inn was vacant, except for a fat tortoiseshell cat which blinked in the sun. Every window to the south stood wide open, black and blank under its green sun-blind. The valley beneath was crystal clear, so that even in the deepest shadow Marcus could see the steely aquamarine glitter of the ice-fragments freshly fallen from the glacier. Only on the slab face of the Eiger, towering pyramidal before him, Marcus discerned even with the naked eye certain black markings which closed and separated, each fine as the dot on an "i" on a sheet of folio paper.
But all beneath and in front of him was empty, vague, and large — flooded with sunshine and drenched in silence, while higher up, pile upon pile, rose the mountains — grim, indomitable, infinitely aloof, in the outer porch of which Nemesis was dealing after her manner with Mr. Kearney Judd.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.