Read CHAPTER XXII of Love and Lucy , free online book, by Maurice Hewlett, on


They were up and away before the light, taking only one guide with them, a sinewy, dark man with a clubbed beard on his chin. If they had had two it had been better, and Urquhart, who knew that, made a great fuss; but to no purpose. All the men were at the saeters, they were told; haymaking was in full swing out there. There was nothing to be done. Urquhart was put out, and in default of another man of sense made James his partner in griefs. “I know these chaps,” he said. “When they are alone they lose their heads. The least little difficulty, they shy off and turn for home. I judge this man of ours to have the heart of a mouse. He don’t want to go at all. If there are two of them they egg each other on. They talk it over. Each tries to be the bolder man.”

“But is there going to be any difficulty?” James enquired, surveying the waste through his eyeglass. “I don’t see why there should be.”

“You never know,” Urquhart said curtly; but presently he was more confidential. “Don’t tell that ass Lingen; but it might be quite difficult to get off this place.”

James stared about him. “You know best. But is it harder to get off than on?”

“Of course it is, my dear chap,” said Urquhart, quite in his old vein of good-tempered scorn. “We are going up on the north side, where the snow is as hard as a brick.”

“Ah,” said James, “now I see. And we go down on the south, where it’s as soft ”

“Where it may be as soft as a bran-mash. Or blown over into cornices.”

James saw, or said that he did. In his private mind he judged Urquhart of trying to intimidate him. The vice of the expert! But he noticed that the guide had a coil of rope, and that Urquhart carried a shovel.

It was easy going until near noon, with no snow to speak about. They climbed a series of ridges, like frozen waves; but each was higher than the last, and took them closer to the clouds. When they lunched under the shelter of some tumbled rocks a drifting rain blew across the desolation.

“Jolly!” said James, but quite happily. Lingen shivered.

“My dear man,” said Urquhart, “just you wait. I’ll surprise you in a quarter of an hour’s time.” He spoke in his old way, as hectoring whom he tolerated. James noticed it, and was amused. He hadn’t yet had time to be angry with this rascal; and now he began to doubt whether he should. After all, he had gained so very much more than he had lost. Honour? Oh, that be jiggered. Something too much of his own honour. Why, it was through Urquhart’s attack upon Lucy that he had found out what Lucy was. Urquhart, at this time, was marching rather in front of him: James looked him over. A hardy, impudent rogue, no doubt with that square, small head on him, that jutting chin and his pair of blue eyes which would look through any woman born and burn her heart to water. Yes, and so he had had Lucy’s heart as water to be poured over his feet. By Heaven, when he thought of it, he, James Adolphus, had been the greater rogue: to play the Grand Turk; to hoard that lovely, quivering creature in his still seraglio; to turn the key, and leave her there! And Jimmy Urquhart got in by the window. Of course he did. He was not an imaginative man by nature; but he was now a lover and had need to enhance his mistress. How better do that than by calling himself a d d fool (the greatest blame he knew)? It follows that if he had been a fool, Urquhart had not! Impudent dog, if you like, but not a fool. Now, for the life of him, James could not despise a man who was not a fool. Nor could he hate one whom he had bested. He did not hate Urquhart; he wasn’t angry with him; he couldn’t despise him. On the contrary, he was sorry for him.

But now the miracle happened, and one could think of nothing else. As they tramped through the cold mist, over snow that was still crisp and short with frost, the light gained by degrees. The flying fog became blue, then radiant: quite suddenly they burst into the sun. The dazzling field stretched on all sides so far as the eye could see. Snow and cloud, one could not distinguish them; and above them the arch of hyaline, a blue interwoven with light, which throbbed to the point of utterance, and drowned itself in the photo-sphere. The light seemed to make the sun, to climb towards the zenith, to mass and then to burst in flame. All three men took it in, each in his fashion. Lingen was greatly moved; Urquhart became jocular.

“Well,” he said to Macartney, “what do you make of that? That’s worth coming up for. That ought to extenuate a good deal.” James was quick to notice the phrase.

“Oh,” he said, “you can show me things. I’m very much obliged to you. This is a wonder of the world.”

“Now what the deuce does he mean by that?” Urquhart thought to himself. Had Lucy told him anything? He didn’t believe it. Impossible. Women don’t tell.

They had seven miles of snow, pretty soft by now, and steadily up hill. They bent themselves seriously to it, and found no occasion for talk. There were crevasses green depths of death to be avoided. Their guide, light-eyed for scares, seemed to know them all, and reserved his alarm for signs in the sky invisible to the party. He mended the pace, which became rather severe. Francis Lingen was distressed; Macartney kept back to give him company. Urquhart forged on ahead with the guide.

By four in the afternoon one at least of them was gruelled. That was Lingen. “If we don’t get down after all, it’ll go hard with Poplolly,” Urquhart said to James. James replied, “Oh, we must get down. That’s all nonsense.” Urquhart said nothing, and they went on.

They reached a point where their guide, stopping for a moment, looked back at them and pointed forward with his staff. “Odde is over there,” he said, and Urquhart added that he knew whereabouts they were. “If it were clear enough,” he told them, “you might see it all lying below you like a map; but I doubt if you’ll see anything.” They pushed on.

Before the last slope, which was now close at hand, the ground became very bad. The crevasses showed in every direction, raying out like cracks on an old bench. The guide was evidently anxious. He gave up all appearance of conducting his party and went off rapidly by himself. They waited for him in silence; but presently Urquhart said, “I bet you any money he won’t want to go down.”

“Don’t he want to dine as much as we do?” said James.

“He doesn’t want to break his neck,” said Urquhart; “that’s his little weakness.”

“I sympathise with him,” James said; “but I should like to know more before I turn back.”

“You’ll only know what he chooses to tell you,” Urquhart answered. Lingen was sitting on the snow.

The guide came back with firm steps. His eyes sought Urquhart’s naturally.

“Well?” he was asked; and lifted his stock up.

“Impossible,” he said.

“Why impossible?” James asked Urquhart, having none of the language, but guessing at the word.

Urquhart and the man talked; the latter was eloquent.

“He says,” Urquhart told them, “that there’s a great cornice, and a drop of forty feet or so. Then he thinks there’s another; but he’s not sure of that. He intends to go back. I knew he did before he went out to look. It’s a beastly nuisance.”

James looked at Lingen, who was now on his feet. “Well,” he said, “what do you feel about it?”

Lingen, red in the face, said, “You’ll excuse me, but I shall do what the guide proposes, though I admit to great fatigue. I don’t think it would be right, under the circumstances, to do otherwise. I feel a great responsibility; but I gather that, in any case, he himself would decline to go down. You will think me timid, I dare say.”

“No, no,” James said. “That’s all right, of course. Personally, I should be inclined to try the first cornice anyhow. There’s always a chance, you know.”

Urquhart looked at him keenly. “Do you mean that?” he asked him.

“Yes,” James said. “Why do you ask?” Urquhart turned away. When he faced James again he was strangely altered. His eyes were narrower; lines showed beside his mouth. Temptation was hot in the mouth. “We’d better talk about it,” he said, and jerked his head sideways.

James walked with him a little way. “What’s all this mystery?” he asked.

“I wonder if you know what you are doing,” Urquhart said; “I wonder if you know what this means. Do you know, for instance, that I don’t care a damn whether I break my neck or not, and on the whole would rather that you did than didn’t? You ought to know it. But I’m asking you.”

James kept his eyeglass to his eye. “I think you are talking nonsense,” he said, “but I don’t suppose you intend it for nonsense. You inspire me to say, taking you on your face value, that I shall try the first cornice. If it’s a forty-foot drop, we ought to have rope enough.”

Urquhart peered at him. “You mean what you say?”

“Certainly I do.” Urquhart turned on his heel.

“All right,” he said, and went over to the other two.

“Macartney and I are going down,” he said to Lingen. “I don’t at all blame you for going back, but I’ll trouble you to see that this man does the needful to-morrow. The needful is to come out here as early as he can get over the ground, to see if we want him. He had better fire a gun, or shout. If we are alive we shall answer him. If we don’t answer, he had better see about it. I don’t want to scare you, but this is not a joke, and I can’t afford to be misunderstood. Now I’m going to tell him all that in his own lingo.”

Lingen took it very badly; but said nothing. Urquhart spoke vehemently to the guide, who raised his staff and appeared to be testifying to Heaven. He handed over the rope, the shovel, and the kit with an air of Pilate washing his hands.

“Now,” Urquhart said to James, “we’ll rope, and see if we can cut some steps through this thing. I’ve seen that done.” James, dropping his eyeglass, said that he was in his hands. Everybody was quiet, but they were all in a hurry.

Lingen came up to say good-bye. He was very much distressed, nearly crying. The guide, on the other hand, was chafing to be off. “If that chap calls himself a guide,” said Urquhart, “he ought to be shot.” The guide thereupon threw up his hands with a gesture of despair. Lingen said that he couldn’t possibly go until he had seen them down. The guide, who was sullen and nervous, remained to help them. Even that seemed to be against his convictions.

They fixed one of the stocks in a crevasse; Urquhart roped. Then he went forward to the edge, or what seemed to be the edge, and having crawled on his belly so far as to be almost invisible, presently was seen to be standing up, then to fall to it with the shovel. He seemed to be cutting steps, and descending as he worked. Gradually he disappeared, and the pull on the rope began. They paid out cautiously and regularly all seemed well. He might have had twenty feet of it; and then there was a sudden violent wrench at it, and it came back limp in Macartney’s hands.

“He’s gone,” he said. Then he shouted with all his might. No answer came. They all shouted; the echoes rang round the waste, driven back on them from the hidden mountain tops. In the deathlike hush which followed one of them thought to hear an answering cry. Lingen heard it, or thought that he did, and began to haul up the rope. When they had the end of it in their hands it was found to be cut clean. “He did that himself,” James said, then added, “I’m going down. Give me out this rope for what it’s worth.” To Lingen he said, “Get back as quick as you can, and bring up some men to-morrow.” Then, having secured himself, he went down the flawless snow slope, and they paid out the cord as he wanted it. He had no particular sensation of fear; he knew too little about it to have any. It is imaginative men who fear the unknown. True, the rope had been cut once, and might have to be cut again. If Urquhart had had to cut, it was because it had been too short. And now it would be shorter. But there was no time to think of anything.

The snow seemed to be holding him. He had got far beyond Urquhart’s ledges, was upon the place where Urquhart must have slid rapidly down. All was well as yet, but he didn’t want to overshoot the mark. He kept his nerve steady, and tried to work it all out in his mind. If this were really a cornice it must now be very thin, he thought. He drove at it with his staff, and found that it was so. It was little more than a frozen crust. He kicked into it with his feet, got a foothold, and worked the hole bigger. Then he could peer down into the deep, where the shadows were intensely blue. It looked a fearful drop; but he saw Urquhart lying there, and went on. He descended some ten, or perhaps fifteen feet more, and found himself dangling in the air. He was at the end of the rope then. “I’ll risk it,” he said, and got his knife out.

He dropped within a few yards of Urquhart.