BEFORE THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE S. A. C.
The S. A. C. Guides' Committee was in session. The president of the district, in whose hands was the oversight of all high-mountain guides' certificates, was none other than our burly parson. With him were conjoined three or four men, prominent citizens of the commune — Herr Adler, the mountaineering landlord of the principal inn; Oscar Conradia, a dark Italian-looking man, a rich proprietor from the neighbouring valley; the local doctor, and an assessor or legal adviser all the way from Thun, with a wooden gargoyle face, like those which they carve on pipe bowls in that enterprising village.
These men sat on cane chairs in a semicircle, silently waiting for the opening of the court of inquiry. Before them, standing in a down-looking, hang-dog way, like criminals already condemned, were the accused men — great Christian Schlegel, his blonde hair frosted with the grey dryness which comes early to all fair mountaineers, and beside him, fingering his hat-brim awkwardly, little brown Peter. Their Führerbuchs lay open on the table in front of the pastor, ready to be cancelled or restored to them, according to the result of the trial. For to be "drunk upon the mountain" is the only deadly and utterly unpardonable crime in a first-class Swiss guide.
Now Peter and Christian had no confidence in the value of their denials. They knew well enough that their word would go but a small way against the oath of the rich Herr who had accused them; and as for their characters, though they had never been guilty of excess upon duty — well, at other times they were as other men.
Left to themselves, they would simply have listened patiently and without defence to the burden of accusation, and submitted silently to the punishment. Yet this would not have proceeded either from stupidity or indifference. Christian and Peter were men of some local reputation as good men in an emergency, but neither were quite blameless in the matter of occasional brandy. So now, as they stood waiting for their accuser, their eyes turned again and again with eager inquiry towards the door. At last the tall, slight figure of Keith Harford appeared, carrying a certain indolence about its pose which strikingly belied the owner's active habits. At this point Christian Schlegel furtively kicked little Peter behind the table, as he would have done at the chamois hunt when a big buck stood up against the sky-line and he dared not speak.
But, meanwhile, where was the accuser? Justice stood on tiptoe, and Harford was ready to give his testimony. Marcus too ought by this time to have been at the Presbytery. Also where was Marcus?
Alas! beauty in seductive guise had claimed him. On his way to the court he met Idalia Judd, who stayed him in the pleasant gardens about the dependence of the Black Eagle (which her father, returning from Meiringen, had hired for his family), where under the pines the ants were scurrying to and fro with their pine needles, or busily transporting their eggs from point to point.
"You may come and sit down by me — surely it is much too hot a day to break your neck on glaciers," commanded the imperious Idalia, swinging her Japanese fan by one charming finger. Whereat, looking at her, Marcus swung a moment on the apex of temptation, walked solemnly forward, and sat down at Idalia's feet.
"I have to go to the pastor's house on urgent business," thus he salved his conscience. "I can only stay a minute."
"Oh," said Idalia, with a start; "yes, I know — about my brother's guides. Do you know, Mr. Hardy, I am very sorry for these two poor men!"
"Oh, the two poor men are all right," said careless Marcus, nursing his knee and looking up into the blue eyes of Idalia Judd.
Now up to this point only amused mischief had been dancing in those clear orbs, but now, though they still continued to smile, a clever brain was working like yeast behind them.
"You mean," said the girl, apparently as carelessly, "that my brother will do something for their families, or that the fault is too common here to be thought anything of, and they will escape punishment?"
"No," said Marcus, breaking a stick slowly into finger-lengths, and throwing the pieces at a large ant which was packing the dead body of a relation over one shoulder after having unfraternally bitten off his head; " and, do you know, if I were your brother, I would not go down to the court to-day."
"No," said Idalia, leaning nearer to him and speaking a little breathlessly; "and why not?"
Though not, like her sister Astoria, favoured with her brother's confidence, she knew enough of the peculiar talents of Mr. Kearney to feel some apprehension.
"Well," answered Marcus, "ask him if he knows any reason why he had better not appear. And say to him that whatever he knows, other people know just as much!"
"Thank you," said Idalia, smiling and rising; "I shall not forget."
"I tell you this for your sake, not for your brother's!" said the traitor, rising also and looking after her as she moved light foot to the door of the hotel. Idalia nodded gaily over her shoulder and the blue eyes smiled sunnily as ever. But there was trouble in her heart, for though she did not love her brother with any overpowering affection, yet nevertheless, for her mother's sake, she did not wish him to be caught in any snare of his own devising.
So effective were her words, and so active and potent the power of Mr. Kearney Judd's imagination, joined to what remained to him of a never very active conscience, that in five minutes that young man was making his way through the skirting woods by a path which joined the main road to Interlaken some distance below the village. Kearney was hatless and in some disarray, for he had been so startled by Idalia's impressive warning that he had in no wise stood upon the order of his going.
It was early in the season and the full fury of the tourist stream had not yet set in; otherwise the strange spectacle might have been seen of a young man in a neat, London-made tweed suit running hatless down a white Alpine highway. By the bridge of Zweilutchinen he found a return carriage, and, jumping in, bade the driver go as swiftly as possible to the station at Interlaken. At which being arrived, and mounting into one of the little rabbit-hutches on wheels which at that period served as carriages between the lakes, he passed for the present out of our ken.
Meanwhile the court was proceeding with that leisured and headachy dullness which characterises all continental official procedure, legal and semi-legal. Out in the garden of the dependence of the Black Eagle, Marcus the traitor waited and yawned. He sat down again on the plank from which Idalia had risen. He was in hopes that she would come back; but, though that ingenious maiden was not too proud to watch the garden seat from behind her closed green blinds, the eyes of Marcus saw no more than the white front of the house staringly hot in the sun, with its freshly painted shutters closed on account of the noontide heat. After a long pause, the faithless Marcus strayed towards the courtroom.
He arrived just in time to hear the conclusion of his friend's story. Keith Harford gave his evidence in a quiet voice, and at the first sound of his clear, fluent German the faces of the two accused men had turned wonderingly upon him. But as he recounted each incident with concision and a certain grave detachment and dispassion unusual in so young a man, the sullen indifference of the accused was broken up, and they nodded vehemently as point by point the story of the abortive attempt upon the Eiger was told.
No sooner had Keith Harford sat down, after answering the questions put to him by the pastor and several other members of the court, than a tall, slender girl rose and gently requested to be permitted a word. The pastor nodded kindly and with sympathy. "Understand, madam, we do not claim any legal powers," he said; "we are only here to find out the truth. But if you can tell us anything pertinent to the occurrence or reveal anything which may cast light upon the conduct of these two accused men, we shall be very glad to listen."
"I can cast no light upon the circumstances," said lone March.
"Then on whose account do you appear?"
"On behalf of Mr. Kearney Judd," she said firmly, looking past Keith Harford with a certain hard pride in the set of her finely cut features, as if she had a secret shame close to her heart, and were making a conscience of glorying in it.
"Are you Herr Judd's wife?" asked the pastor innocently enough.
"No," she answered, with the same proud look at Keith, in which anger and defiance seemed to mingle; "but I was engaged to be married to him."
The tense of the verb was not lost on Keith Harford. He looked up quickly, and, though she did not appear to be aware of his existence, it seemed to him as though the information that her engagement was a thing of the past had been meant for him alone.
"And why is Herr Judd not here to answer for himself?" asked the president.
The girl went on bravely, the only woman in that silent company of men.
"I do not doubt but that Mr. Judd will be able to set the matter right as soon as he is able to appear. He has many interests and much anxiety. I do not know why he is not here. He may have been summoned hastily away on business. But in the meantime, as his representative, I ask to be allowed to pay these men their wages and board wages for the complete term of their engagement, together with any sum which the court may direct, as compensation for the loss of Mr. Judd's employment."
The pastor smiled and bowed amicably. He was glad to accept a proposal so satisfactory to his compatriots, and which had also the merit of avoiding so gracefully all international complications.
"Madam," he said, "your proposal is such a handsome one that we leave the amount of compensation to your discretion and sense of justice, and postpone the hearing of Herr Judd's explanation of the circumstances to a future occasion. Doubtless if he had not been summoned away by business he would have been able to clear up the discrepancies between his sworn account of the ascent and that given by the men, which has now been so amply corroborated by my friend Herr Keith Harford, of the English Alpine Club. Peter Jossi and Christian Schlegel, I shall ask leave of the court to endorse your certificates on behalf of the S. A. C. with an honourable testimonial of your faithfulness. The court stands adjourned."
And as Ione March passed out of the cool shades of the Presbytery, in which she had taken the burden of another's shame upon her, she looked once at Keith Harford. It was a strange glance whose meaning the young man could not fathom, save that she seemed to see him, as it were, diminished to a point, across an infinite and impassable chasm, and that her eyes were no warmer or more friendly than the frosty winter stars.
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First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.