HARK, THE LARK!
It was an off day, yet Keith Harford was awake betimes in the tiny hostel on the Wengern Alp, held (as the sign stated plainly) against all comers by Johann Jossi. Keith awoke because he missed something. He turned restlessly in the little Swiss bed of five foot six inches in extreme length, over the terminal bar of which his feet projected like the "trams" of a wheelbarrow. The young man was wakeful from unaccustomed comfort. He had indeed taken his knapsack to bed with him, which, in addition to a spirit lamp and appurtenances, contained a camera built with knobs and acute angles particularly inimical to luxury. He had also entrenched himself behind half a dozen books and a field-glass covered in rusty leather.
All these were mingled and scattered about under the sheet, and as Harford lashed this way and that he turned now upon the edge of a book and anon upon the brassbound corner of a box, with a sense of comfortable discomfort and stern refreshment which passed all too quickly. For hours he had wrestled with the fusty national coverture of feathers and had been overthrown, speaking in the dead unhappy night words better left unsaid. And yet at the time even these had been some solace to him.
But now in the clean-washed morning air the vanquished feather-sack reposed without on the tiny causeway in front of the Eigerhof, and was indeed the first object that saluted the morning gaze of Herr Johann Jossi as, simply attired in shirt and trousers, he strolled barefoot and hatless out of the back door of his inn to arouse the sleepers in the stables to their daily work. For with the energy of despair Keith Harford had cast the devil out at the window. And the feather-bed now squatted on the path, a humorous broad-based round-shouldered gnome, one corner of it comically lurched forward like the ear of a dog that has been kicked once and now listens intently for signs of further hostility.
Through the twin green-painted leaves of the open latticed window Keith could see, as he drowsed off and waked up alternately, the darting swallows weaving intricate webs of air in the gulf between him and the distant mountain side. It seemed so near that he almost imagined he could reach those white patches with his ice-axe from the window. But Keith knew well that yonder blue scar, like a chip knocked out of a tumbler edge, denoted a bare spot of glacier ice fifty yards across, from which an avalanche of fragments had been precipitated sufficient to bury the Hotel Wengern-Alp, with all the stables, cow-sheds, goat-sheds, and sheep-pens thereto appertaining.
Sleepily he watched a white spot of the glacier slopes enlarge and slide downwards, pushing before it a little ruffle of greyness like a breeze on still water. There was a puff of smoke like the exhaust of a high-pressure engine at the black edge of the cliff, a hazy mistiness beneath, and yet so far away was all this that before the dull, long-resounding roar of the snow-slide entered through the open casement, Keith was once more uneasily dozing.
Now the Wengernhaus under Johann Jossi was a good hotel, and the sleeper only restless from an overplus of comfort. For Keith Harford had spent much of the previous month in scaling new "faces" of well-known mountains, and in tracing out untried routes over passes of such extreme difficulty, that to the uninstructed eye it seemed much easier to go straight over the tops of the mountains themselves, and so be done with it. He had bivouacked in the huts of the Alpine Clubs, slept the sleep of the just upon the damp straw beds of the Swiss Union, lain like a log upon his back all night on the bare opportunist boards of France, and acquired on short leases the elegantly-fitted mountain mansions of the Tyrol — these last with real glass in the windows, a mirror on the wall, and a circulating library in the press by the German stove. Oftener still, remote alike from shelters and huts, he had shared with Marcus Hardy, his one chosen comrade, the discomforts of a nook among the rocks, where, as the latter sadly admitted, the sole amenities of the situation were, " Harford's knees in your back and half the Oberland in the pit of your stomach!"
Keith Harford had not slept when only the Thal-wind sighed softly through his green lattices, like the whispered speech of lovers in the dark. He had waked when the first starling twittered under the heavy pine-smelling eaves; but yet, so perverse is man, so soon as the inn yard arose to cheerful bustle, when the clattering of tin milking-pails, the goatherds' cries of "keets-keets,'' the chink and tinkle of cow-bells, the whinnying of goats and the lowing of cattle were emulously at strife to deafen the clamour of shrill patois and the clatter of outgoing horses' hoofs, Harford turned to his pillow with a sigh of content and hope. This was something like. He felt that he could sleep now, and accordingly he slept.
But the welcome oblivion was not to be for long. The light door of unpainted wood which separated him from a long barrack-like corridor, bent inward at the top like the leaves of a book turned over by the finger of an eager reader, and the seeing part of a jovial face looked in. It was Marcus the giant, making ready to wake his friend with a thunderous rataplan. For Keith Harford, aware of his comrade's little ways, had taken the precaution to fasten his door before going to bed the night before.
"Not that a little thing like that matters with these flimsy Swiss locks," said Marcus as he levered it open in the middle with the broad cutting edge of his ice-axe. The nails which held the lock parted from the new wood with a soft suck of wheezy discontent. "It's as easy to draw the things they call screws here as - O the somniferous beggar! Keith, are you going to sleep all day?"
Then with his ponderous fists Marcus performed a deafening obligato upon the violated door, whistling shrilly and marking the time alternately with the heels and toes of his well-tacketed boots.
His victim sat up in bed with an expression at once bland and dazed.
The giant nodded confidentially.
"Wagner," he explained, referring to the music. "'The March of the Thingummies' — fellows with wings to their pickel-haubes, you know. Now then, drums, and trumpets! Tarantara-ra-ra. Slap-bangity-whop, and— there-you-are — Pôm-POM!"
Having thus ended his fantasia he bowed right and left gracefully, as if acknowledging wild bursts of applause from a crowded audience, and ended by laying his hand upon his heart in the strictest Blue Danubian manner. Seeing a faint but sad smile flicker upon the face of his friend, Marcus Hardy next hollowed his palms, and with his thumbs to his lips he began to play a soft and moving melody.
"Flutes and oboes," he explained, with a wave of his hand; "the Spirits of the Woods and Mountains descending to arouse the Sleeping Beauty of the Wengern!"
He broke off short, however, with quick alternate indignation. "I never saw such a fellow as you are. You don't deserve to live, much less to get any breakfast!" he cried. "You've no gratitude. Why, after all I've done for you, you sit grouting there as solemn as a brass monkey with the toothache. What's the matter with you, man? At your advanced age you can't be in love?"
"Oh, do go away and order breakfast, there's a good fellow!" said Harford, quietly sitting up in bed, and skirmishing with one hand under the sheets for a missile. Seen in the broad light of day, Keith Harford showed of very different mould from that in which the burly giant Marcus was cast. His finely-shaped smallish head was covered by a close crisp of dark hair, with here and there a thread of early grey running becomingly through it, and in his darkly-melancholy eyes dreams and disappointments seemed to have their dwelling. Keith Harford looked "interesting," which is a word foreign to the male vocabulary; and when he came out upon a hotel "piazza" anywhere from Chamouni to the "Three Kings" of Basle, appreciative maidens remarked covertly to each other, "I'm sure he's had a disappointment."
Marcus Hardy stood for a moment with a comical air of disappointment puckering his genial face.
"Well," he said, with an exaggerated sigh of resignation, "I never glimpsed such a chap — devil a bit of encouragement or appreciation! Here have I been all round the place at the screech of day to swot up Wagner, and I've practised that fellow Strauss till I'm a perfect wreck — Pulsationen, Vibrationen. This sort of thing - -"
He showed symptoms of beginning again with the military comb which he had been covering with paper torn from a Tauchnitz volume, but his companion held up his hand.
"Now do go away, there's a good fellow," he said. "I’ll be down in ten minutes."
"All right," said Marcus, nodding, "'Man's inhumanity to man' — or words to that effect! 'Tis the way of the world! I’ll have the funeral baked-meats all ready."
And so, tucking his ice-axe under his arm, he went playing himself down the long resonant alley of pine boards to the strains of “The Flowers o' the Forest," cheerfully, though somewhat capriciously, performed upon imaginary bagpipes.
But Marcus was arrested ere he reached the stairs, and the melody cut off sharply as with a knife by the voice of Keith Harford behind him.
"Stop that, Hardy! Not that — make a fool of any tune but that, old man."
The tones were earnest and full of feeling.
Hardy nodded his head to himself several times quickly, as if giving the matter up.
"Well," he muttered, "it's much use a fellow trying to be cheerful, with poets and geniuses lying round loose. All right, old man!" he cried aloud; "I forgot that you were more than half a wild borderer. Have you any sentimental objections to 'Tommy, make room for your uncle?'"
And dropping his boyish boisterousness all at once like a masquerading cloak, Marcus Hardy tramped down to the sanctum of Herr Jossi, cornered that potentate, and with practical directness began to arrange for breakfast on the short green turf in front of the house, beside the great brass telescope through which so many ascents of the mountain had been made, and which, tilted at a knowing angle, was sunning itself in the pure morning air and winking confidentially up to the Silver Horn of the Jungfrau under the indigo black sky of the Bernese Oberland.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.