Read THE BEAUTIFUL WRETCH: CHAPTER VIII of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on ReadCentral.com.

SNOW AND MIST AND SUNLIGHT.

The desolation of that next morning! A wonder of snow outside the windows the large dark flakes slowly, noiselessly passing the panes; snow on the open space fronting the great, gaunt hostelry; snow on the small spire of the church; and snow on the far reaches of the hills, retreating up there into the gray mists, where every pine-tree was a sharp black thing on the broad expanse of white. The girls were greatly downcast. They had their breakfast brought to them in the big cold room; they took it hurriedly, with scarcely a word. They saw Parsons rushing across the square; when she came in there were flakes of snow in her hair, and her fingers were blue with cold.

‘The English go abroad for pleasure,’ said Edith, with sarcasm.

By and by they heard the jingle of the bells outside, and on going below they found Frank King in the doorway, encased from head to foot in an ulster.

‘This is indeed luck this is great luck,’ said he, blithely.

‘Luck do you call it?’ said Edith Beresford.

‘Certainly,’ said he; ’the first snow of the year! Most opportune. Of course you must see the Splugen Pass in snow.’

‘We shan’t see anything,’ said Edith in gloom.

‘Never mind,’ said Miss Beresford, good-naturedly; ’we shall have crossed the Alps in a snowstorm, and that sounds well. And I daresay we shall amuse ourselves somehow. Do you feel inclined to give up your carriage to-day again?’

She had turned to Frank King. There was a smile on her face, for she guessed that it was no great sacrifice on his part. Moreover, she had enjoyed that drive the day before; the presence of a fourth person broke the monotony of the talking of three girls together. It is needless to add that Frank King eagerly welcomed her proposal, and in due course the two carriages drove away from the big, bare hostelry to enter the unknown mountain-world.

A strange world they found it, when once they had left the level of the little valley and begun to climb the steep and twisting road cut on the face of the mountain. The aspect of things changed every few minutes, as the rolling mists slowly blotted out this or that portion of the landscape, or settled down so close that they could see nothing but the wet snow in the road, and the black-stemmed pines beyond, with their green branches stretching out towards them through the pall of cloud. Then sometimes they would look down into extraordinary gulfs of mist extraordinary because, far below them, they would find the top of a fir-tree, the branches laden with snow, the tree itself apparently resting on nothing floating in mid air. It was a phantasmal world altogether, the most cheerful feature of it being that at last the snow had ceased to fall.

This decided Nan to get out for a walk.

‘You will be wet through,’ her elder sister exclaimed.

‘My boots are thick,’ said Nan, ‘and Parsons has my waterproof.’

When she had got down, and disappeared, Miss Beresford said,

‘She is a strange girl; she always wants to be alone.’

’She seems to think a great deal, and she always thinks in her own way,’ said Frank King. ’No doubt she prefers to be alone; but but don’t you think I ought to get out and see that she is all right?’

‘There are no brigands in these mountains, are there?’ said Miss Beresford, laughing.

‘And she can’t lose her way,’ said the more serious Edith, ’unless she were to fall over the side.’

‘I think I will get out,’ he said, and he called to the driver.

He found that Nan was already some way ahead, or rather overhead; but he soon overtook her. She was startled when she saw him, for the snow had deadened the sound of his approach.

‘I believe it will clear soon,’ he said at a venture.

‘It is altogether very strange,’ Nan said in something of a lower voice. ’The fir-trees laden with snow like that, the cold, the gloom: it looks like some bygone Christmas come back suddenly. It is strange to find yourself in another part of the year: yesterday, summer; to-day, winter. I should not be surprised to meet a cart filled with holly, or to hear the bells ringing for morning service.’

‘You know there are people who never see winter,’ said he; ’I wonder what it feels like when you move from place to place so as to live in a perpetual spring and summer.’

‘I don’t think it can be the real spring,’ she said, after a second. ’The summer, I suppose, is the same anywhere; it hasn’t the newness and the strangeness of the spring. Wouldn’t it be a nice thing now to be able to take some poor English lady who has been compelled to live all the early months of each year in the south, among hot-house sort of things, and just to show her for a minute a little English village in the real spring time, such as she must have known when she was a girl, with the daffodils in the cottage gardens, and the young leaves on the elm and the hawthorn. And perhaps a lark would be singing high up; and there might be a scent of wallflower; and the children coming home with daisy wreaths. She would cry, perhaps; but she would like it better than the hot-house flowers and the Riviera. There are some things that have a wonderful way of bringing back old memories the first smell of wallflower in the spring is one, and the first fall of snow in the winter. And there’s an old-fashioned kind of musky smell, too, that always means Sunday clothes, and a tall pew, and a village choir.’

‘But you seem to have a strong faculty of association,’ said young Frank King, who was far more interested in Nan than in musk.

‘I don’t know,’ she said carelessly. ’I don’t study myself much. But I know I have a strong bump of locality isn’t that what they call it? I wish I had been born in a splendid place. I wish I had been born among great mountains, or amongst remote sea islands, or even beautiful lake scenery; and I know I should have loved my native place passionately and yearned for it; and I should have thought it was the most beautiful place in the world especially when I was away from it for that’s the usual way. But when you are born in London and live in Brighton, you can’t make much out of that.’

Then she added with some compunction,

’Not but that I am very fond of the south coast. I know it so well; and of course you get fond of anything that you are very intimate with, especially if other people don’t know much about it. And there is far more solitariness about the south coast than the people imagine who come down to the Bedford Hotel for a week.’

‘You are a great walker, are you not?’ he said.

‘Oh no; but I walk a good deal.’

‘And always alone?’

’Generally. It is very seldom I have a companion. Do you know Singing Sal?’

‘Singing Sal? No. How should I? Who is she?’

‘A kind of tramping musician,’ said Nan, with a grave smile. ’She is a friend of the fishermen and coastguardsmen and sailors down there; I daresay some of your men must have heard of her. She is a good-looking woman, and very pleasant in her manner, and quite intelligent. I have seen her very often, but I never made her acquaintance till the week before last.’

‘Her acquaintance!’

‘Yes,’ said Nan, simply; ’and I mean to renew it when I get back, if mamma will let me. Singing Sal knows far more about the coast than I do, and I want to learn more. . . . Oh, look!’

Both of them had been for some time aware of a vague luminousness surrounding them, as if the sun wanted to get through the masses of vapour; but at this moment she, happening to turn her head, found that the wind had in one direction swept away the mist, and behold, far away in the valley beneath them, they could see the village of Splugen, shining quite yellow in the sunlight. Then the clouds slowly closed over the golden little picture, and they turned and walked on. But in front of them, overhead, the wind was still at work, and there were threads of keen blue now appearing over the twisting vapours. Things began to be more cheerful. Both the carriages behind had been thrown open. Nan’s face looked pink, after one’s eyes had got so used to the whiteness of the snow.

’I suppose there are no people so warmly attached to their country as the Swiss are, she said (she was not ordinarily a chatterbox, but the cold, keen air seemed to have vivified her). ’I am very glad the big thieves of the world left Switzerland alone. It would have been a shame to steal this little bit from so brave a people. Do you know the song of the Swiss soldier in the trenches at Strasburg? I think it is one of the most pathetic songs in the world.’

‘No, I don’t,’ he said. How delighted he was to let her ramble on in this way, revealing the clear, beautiful soul, as Singing Sal might have thought.

‘He tells the story himself,’ she continued. ’It is the sound of the Alphorn that has brought this sorrow to him, he says. He was in the trenches at night, and he heard the sound of the Alphorn far away, and nothing would do but that he must try to escape and reach his fatherland by swimming the river. Then he is taken, and brought before the officers, and condemned to be shot; and he only asks his brother soldiers to fire straight But I am not going to spoil it.’

She put her hand up furtively for a second to her eyes, and then she said cheerfully

‘I have had enough walking. Suppose we wait for the carriage?’

‘I think I ought to apologise to you, Miss Anne,’ said he. ’You prefer walking by yourself I ought not to have come and bothered you.’

‘It is of no consequence,’ said Nan, looking back for the carriage, ’so long as you haven’t wet your feet.’

They got into the carriage and continued on their way; and very soon it became apparent, from the flashes of sunlight and gleams of blue, that they had worked their way up through the cloud-layers. In process of time, indeed, they got clear of the mists altogether, and emerged on to the higher valleys of the Alps vast, sterile, the white snow-plains glittering in the sun, except where the rocks showed through in points of intense black. There were no longer any pines. They were in a world of snow and barren rocks and brilliant sunlight, with a cold luminous blue sky overhead; themselves the only living creatures visible; their voices sounding strangely distinct in the silence.

When they were quite at the summit of the pass, a smurr, as we say in Scotland, came over; but it did not last. By the time they had got the drags on the wheels, the vast gorge before them descending and winding until it disappeared in a wall of mountains of the deepest blue was again filled with sunlight; and now they began to be a little bit sheltered from the wind as the horses trotted and splashed through the wet snow, carrying them away down into Italy.

They lunched at Campo Dolcino, still some thousands of feet above the level of the sea. Then on again, swinging away at a rapid pace down into a mighty valley; rattling through galleries cut in the solid rock; then out again into the grateful sunlight; taking the sharp curves of the road at the same breakneck speed; with always below them and so far below them that it was silent a rushing river sweeping down between fair pastures and dots of villages. As the evening fell, this clatter of hoofs and wheels came to a sudden end; for they were entering the town of Chiavenna, and there you must go at walking pace through the narrow little thoroughfares. It was strange for them to come down from the snow-world into this ordinary little town, and to find in the hotel not only all sorts of products of a high civilisation, but even people who were speaking the familiar English tongue.

There was a telegram addressed ‘Lieutenant F. H. King, R.N.,’ in the case in the bureau; when Frank King had got it out and read it he was silent for a second or two.

‘I hope there is no bad news,’ said Miss Beresford, in a kindly way. She was not a very sympathetic person; but Frank King had brightened up their tour during these last two days, and she was in a measure grateful to him.

‘No,’ he said, absently. ’Oh no, not bad news. The telegram is from the officer I left in charge of the Fly-by-Night; I rather think that I shall be setting out for home again in a couple of days.’

‘Oh, I am sorry for that,’ she said, quite naturally.

‘You go on again to-morrow, Miss Beresford?’

‘We were proposing to do so.’

‘And where do you think of going to when you get to Lake Como?’

‘Bellagio, most probably.’

‘Oh, well, I will go with you as far as Bellagio, if I may,’ he said, somewhat thoughtfully.