In The Shadow Of The Matterhorn
 

They had been days at dear Interlaken, walking up and down the Hoheweg, of which they never tired, or resting on the benches under the plane and walnut trees opposite their hotel, just sitting still to gaze their fill upon the Jungfrau. This was best of all--so Polly and Jasper thought; and Phronsie was content to pass hour after hour there, by Grandpapa's side, and imagine all sorts of pretty pictures and stories in and about the snow-clad heights of the majestic mountain.

And the throng of gaily dressed people sojourning in the big hotels, and the stream of tourists, passed and repassed, with many a curious glance at the stately, white-haired old gentleman and the little yellow-haired girl by his side.

"A perfect beauty!" exclaimed more than one matron, with a sigh for her ugly girls by her side or left at home.

"She's stunning, and no mistake!" Many a connoisseur in feminine loveliness turned for a last look, or passed again for the same purpose.

"Grandpapa," Phronsie prattled on, "that looks just like a little tent up there- -a little white tent; doesn't it, Grandpapa dear?"

"Yes, Phronsie," said Grandpapa, happily, just as he would have said "Yes, Phronsie," if she had pointed out any other object in the snowy outline.

"And there's a cunning little place where you and I could creep into the tent," said Phronsie, bending her neck like a meditative bird. "And I very much wish we could, Grandpapa dear."

"We'd find it pretty cold in there," said Grandpapa, "and wish we were back here on this nice seat, Phronsie."

"What makes it so cold up there, Grandpapa, when the sun shines?" asked Phronsie, suddenly. "Say, Grandpapa, what makes it?"

"Oh, it's so far up in the air," answered old Mr. King. "Don't you remember how cold it was up on the Rigi, and that was about nine thousand feet lower?"

"Oh, Grandpapa!" exclaimed Phronsie, in gentle surprise, unable to compass such figures.

Mr. King's party had made one or two pleasant little journeys to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, staying there and at Mürren, and to Grindelwald as well; but they came back to sit on the benches by the walnut and the plane trees, in front of the matchless Jungfrau. "And this is best of all," said Polly.

And so the days slipped by, till one morning, at the breakfast table, Mrs. Selwyn said, "Tomorrow we must say good-by--my boy and I."

"Hey--what?" exclaimed Mr. King, setting his coffee-cup down, not very gently.

"Our vacation cannot be a very long one," said Tom's mother, with a little smile; "there are my father and my two daughters and my other boys in England."

Tom's face was all awry as Mr. King said, "And you mean to say, Mrs. Selwyn, that you really must move on to-morrow?"

"Yes; we really must," she said decidedly. "But oh," and her plain, quiet face changed swiftly, "you cannot know how sorry we shall be to leave your party."

"In that case, Mrs. Fisher,"--old Mr. King looked down the table-length to Mamsie,--"we must go too; for I don't intend to lose sight of these nice travelling companions until I am obliged to." Tom's face was one big smile. "Oh, goody!" exclaimed Polly, as if she were no older than Phronsie.

Jasper clapped Tom's back, instead of wasting words.

"So we will all proceed to pack up without more ado after breakfast. After all, it is wiser to make the move now, for we are getting so that we want to take root in each place."

"You just wait till you get to Zermatt," whispered Polly to Phronsie, who, under cover of the talk buzzing around the table, had confided to her that she didn't want to leave her beautiful mountain. "Grandpapa is going to take us up to the Gorner Grat, and there you can see another mountain,--oh, so near! he says it seems almost as if you could touch it. And it's all covered with snow, Phronsie, too!"

"Is it as big as my mountain here?" asked Phronsie.

"Yes, bigger, a thousand feet or more," answered Polly, glad that she had looked it up.

"Is it?" said Phronsie. "Every mountain is bigger, isn't it, Polly?"

"It seems to be," said Polly, with a little laugh.

"And has it a little white tent on the side, just like my mountain here?" asked Phronsie, holding Polly's arm as she turned off to catch the chatter of the others.

"Oh, I suppose so," answered Polly, carelessly. Then she looked up and caught Mamsie's eye, and turned back quickly. "At any rate, Phronsie, it's all peaked on the top--oh, almost as sharp as a needle--and it seems to stick right into the blue sky, and there are lots and lots of other mountains--oh, awfully high,- -and the sun shines up there a good deal, and it's too perfectly lovely for anything, Phronsie Pepper."

"Then I want to go," decided Phronsie. "I do so want to see that white needle, Polly."

"Well, eat your breakfast," said Polly, "because you know we all have ever so much to do to-day to get off."

"Yes, I will," declared Phronsie, attacking her cold chicken and roll with great vigour.

"It seems as if the whole world were at Zermatt," said the parson, looking out from the big piazza crowded with the hotel people, out to the road in front, with every imaginable tourist passing and repassing. Donkeys were being driven up, either loaded down to their utmost with heavy bags and trunks, or else waiting to receive on their patient backs the heavier people. Phronsie never could see the poor animals, without such distress coming in her face that every one in the party considered it his or her bounden duty to comfort and reassure her. So this time it was Tom's turn to do so.

"Oh, don't you worry," he said, looking down into her troubled little face where he sat on the piazza railing swinging his long legs, "they like it, those donkeys do!"

"Do they?" asked Phronsie, doubtfully.

"Yes, indeed," said Tom, with a gusto, as if he wished he were a donkey, and in just that very spot, "it gives them a chance to see things, and to hear things, too, don't you know?" went on Tom, at his wits' end to know how he was going to come out of his sentences.

"Oh," said Phronsie, yet she sighed as she saw the extremely fat person just being hauled up to a position on a very small donkey's back.

"You see, if they don't like it," said Tom, digging his knife savagely into the railing, "they have a chance to kick up their heels and unsettle that heavy party."

"O dear me!" exclaimed Phronsie, in great distress, "that would hurt the poor woman, Tom."

"Well, it shows that the donkey likes it," said Tom, with a laugh, "because he doesn't kick up his heels."

"And so," ran on Tom, "why, we mustn't worry, you and I, if the donkey doesn't. Just think,"--he made a fine diversion by pointing with his knife-blade up to the slender spire of the Matterhorn--"we're going up on a little jaunt to- morrow, to look into that fellow's face."

Phronsie got out of her chair to come and stand by his side. "I like that white needle," she said, with a gleeful smile. "Polly said it was nice, and I like it."

"I should say it was," declared Tom, with a bob of his head. "Phronsie, I'd give, I don't know what, if I could climb up there." He thrust his knife once more into the railing, where it stuck fast.

"Don't." begged Phronsie, her hand on his sleeve, "go up that big white needle, Tom."

"No, I won't; it's safe to promise that," he said grimly, with a little laugh. "Good reason why; because I can't. The little mother wouldn't sleep nights just to think of it, and I promised the granddaddy that I wouldn't so much as think of it, and here I am breaking my word; but I can't help it." He twitched his knife out suddenly, sprawled off from the railing, and took several hasty strides up and down the piazza.

"Well, that's all right, Phronsie," he said, coming back to get astride the railing again; this time he turned a cold shoulder on Phronsie's "white needle." "Now, to-morrow, we'll have no end of fun." And he launched forth on so many and so varied delights, that Phronsie's pleased little laugh rang out again and again, bringing rest to many a wearied traveller, tired with the sights, sounds, and scenes of a European journey.

"I wish we could stay at this nice place," said Phronsie, the next morning, poking her head out over the side of the car, as it climbed off from the Riffelalp station.

"Take care, child," said Grandpapa, with a restraining hand.

"You would want to stop at every place," said Polly, from the seat in front, with a gay little laugh. "And we never should get on at that rate. But then I am just as bad," she confessed.

"So am I," chimed in Jasper. "Dear me, how I wanted to get a chance to sketch some of those magnificent curves and rapids and falls in the Visp River coming up."

"Oh, that dear, delicious Visp River!" echoed Polly, while Adela began to bemoan that it was the best thing they had seen, and the car whizzed them by so fast, she couldn't do a thing--O dear!

"I got some snap-shots, but I don't believe they are good for anything," said Jasper, "just from the pure perversity of the thing."

"Take my advice," said Tom, lazily leaning forward, "and don't bother with a camera anyway."

"As if you expected any one to take up with such a piece of advice," ejaculated Jasper, in high disdain. "Say something better than that, Tom, if you want to be heard."

"Oh, I don't expect to be heard, or listened to in the slightest," he said calmly. "Anybody who will trot round with a kodak hanging to his neck by a villanous strap--can't be--"

"Who's got a villanous strap hanging to his neck?" cried Jasper, while the rest shouted as he picked at the fern-box thus hanging to Tom.

"Oh, that's quite a different thing," declared Tom, his face growing red.

"I know; one is a kodak, and the other is a fern-box," said Jasper, nodding. "I acknowledge they are different," and they all burst out laughing again.

"Well, at least," said Tom, joining in the laugh, "you must acknowledge, too, that I go off by myself and pick up my wild flowers and green things, and I'm not bothering round focussing every living thing and pointing my little machine at every freak in nature that I see."

"All right," said Jasper, good-naturedly, "but you have the strap round your neck all the same, Tom."

And Phronsie wanted to stay at the Riffelberg just as much; and old Mr. King was on the point of saying, "Well, we'll come up here for a few days, Phronsie," when he remembered Mrs. Selwyn and her boy, and how they must get on. Instead, he cleared his throat, and said, "We shall see it after dinner, child," and Phronsie smiled, well contented.

But when she reached the Corner Grat station, and took Grandpapa's hand, and began to ascend the bridle path to the hotel, she couldn't contain herself, and screamed right out, "Oh, Grandpapa, I'd rather stay here."

"It is beautiful, isn't it?" echoed old Mr. King, feeling twenty years younger since he started on his travels. "Well, well, child, I'm glad you like it," looking down into her beaming little face.

"You are very much to be envied, sir. I can't help speaking to you and telling you so," said a tall, sober-looking gentleman, evidently an English curate off on his vacation, as he caught up with him on the ascent, where they had paused at one of the look-offs, "for having that child as company, and those other young people."

"You say the truth," replied old Mr. King, cordially; "from the depths of my heart I pity any one who hasn't some children to take along when going abroad. But then they wouldn't be little Peppers," he added, under his breath, as he bowed and turned back to the view.

"There's dear Monte Rosa," cried Polly, enthusiastically. "Oh, I just love her."

"And there's Castor and Pollux," said Jasper.

"And there's the whole of them," said Tom, disposing of the entire range with a sweep of his hand. "Dear me, what a lot there are, to be sure. It quite tires one."

"Oh, anybody but a cold-blooded Englishman!" exclaimed Jasper, with a mischievous glance, "to travel with."

"Anything on earth but a gushing American!" retorted Tom, "to go round the world with."

"I wish I could sketch a glacier," bemoaned Adela, stopping every minute or two, as they wound around the bridle path, "but I can't; I've tried ever so many times."

"Wait till we get to the Mer de Glace," advised Tom. "You can sit down in the middle of it, and sketch away all you want to."

"Well, I'm going to," said Adela, with sudden determination. "I don't care; you can all laugh if you want to."

"You can sketch us all," suggested Jasper, "for we shall have horrible old stockings on."

"I sha'n't have horrible old stockings on," said Adela, in a dudgeon, sticking out her foot. "I wear just the same stockings that I do at home, at school in Paris, and they are quite nice."

"Oh, I mean you'll have to put on coarse woollen ones that the peasant women knit on purpose,--we all shall have to do the same, on over our shoes," explained Jasper.

"O dear me!" cried Adela, in dismay.

"And I think we shall slip and slide a great deal worse with those things tied on our feet, than to go without any," said Polly, wrinkling up her brows at the idea.

"'Twouldn't be safe to go without them," said Jasper, shaking his head, "unless we had nails driven in our shoes."

"I'd much rather have the nails," cried Polly, "oh, much rather, Jasper."

"Well, we'll see what father is going to let us do," said Jasper.

"Wasn't that fun snowballing--just think--in July," cried Polly, craning her neck to look back down the path toward the Riffelberg station.

"Did you pick up some of that snow?" asked Adela.

"Didn't we, though!" exclaimed Jasper. "I got quite a good bit in my fist."

"My ball was such a little bit of a one," mourned Polly; "I scraped up all I could, but it wasn't much."

"Well, it did good execution," said Tom; "I got it in my eye."

"Oh, did it hurt you?" cried Polly, in distress, running across the path to walk by his side.

"Not a bit," said Tom. "I tried to find some to pay you back, and then we had to fly for the cars."

The plain, quiet face under the English bonnet turned to Mrs. Fisher as they walked up the path together. "I cannot begin to tell you what gratitude I am under to you," said Tom's mother, "and to all of you. When I think of my father, I am full of thankfulness. When I look at my boy, the goodness of God just overcomes me in leading me to your party. May I tell you of ourselves some time, when a good opportunity offers for a quiet talk?"

"I'd like nothing better," said Mother Fisher, heartily. "If there is one person I like more than another, who isn't of our family, or any of our home friends, it's Mrs. Selwyn," she had confided to the little doctor just a few days before. "She hasn't any nonsense about her, if she is an earl's daughter."

"Earl's daughter," sniffed the little doctor, trying to slip a collar button into a refractory binding. "Dear me, now that's gone--no, 'tisn't--that's luck," as the button rolled off into a corner of the bureau-top where it was easily captured.

"Let me do that for you, Adoniram," said Mother Fisher, coming up to help him.

"I guess you'll have to, wife, if it's done at all," he answered, resigning himself willingly to her hands; "the thing slips and slides like all possessed. Well, now, I was going to say that I wouldn't hate a title so much, if there was a grain of common sense went along with it. And that Mrs. Selwyn just saves the whole lot of English nobility, and makes 'em worth speaking to, in my opinion."

And after they had their dinner, and were scattered in groups in the bright sunshine, sitting on the wooden benches by the long tables, or taking photographs, or watching through the big glass some mountain climbers on one of the snowy spurs of the Matterhorn, "the good opportunity for a quiet talk" came about.

"Now," said Mother Fisher, with a great satisfaction in her voice, "may we sit down here on this bench, Mrs. Selwyn, and have that talk?"

Tom's mother sat down well pleased, and folding her hands in her lap, this earl's daughter, mistress of a dozen languages, as well as mistress of herself on all occasions, began as simply and with as much directness as a child.

"Well, you know my father. Let me tell you, aside from the eccentricities, that are mere outside matters, and easily explained, if you understood the whole of his life, a kinder man never lived, nor a more reasonable one. But it was a misfortune that he had to be left so much alone, as since my mother's death a dozen years ago has happened. It pained me much." A shadow passed over her brow, but it was gone again, and she smiled, and her eyes regained their old placid look. "I live in Australia with my husband, where my duty is, putting the boys as fast as they were old enough, and the little girls as well, into English schools. But Tom has always been with my father at the vacations, for he is his favourite, as of course was natural, for he is the eldest. And though you might not believe it, Mrs. Fisher, my father was always passionately fond of the boy."

"I do believe it," said Mother Fisher, quietly, and she put her hand over the folded ones. Mrs. Selwyn unclasped hers, soft and white, to draw within them the toil-worn one.

"Now, that's comfortable," she said, with another little smile.

"And here is where his eccentricity became the most dangerous to the peace of mind of our family," continued Mrs. Selwyn. "My father seemed never able to discover that he was doing the lad harm by all sorts of indulgence and familiarity with him, a sort of hail-fellow-well-met way that surprised me more than I can express, when I discovered it on my last return visit to my old home. My father! who never tolerated anything but respect from all of us, who were accustomed to despotic government, I can assure you, was allowing Tom!--well, you were with him on the steamer," she broke off abruptly. The placid look was gone again in a flash.

"Yes," said Mother Fisher, her black eyes full of sympathy; "don't let that trouble you, dear Mrs. Selwyn; Tom was pure gold down underneath--we saw that-- and the rest is past."

"Ah,"--the placid look came back as quickly--"that is my only comfort--that you did. For father told the whole, not sparing himself. Now he sees things in the right light; he says because your young people taught it to him. And he was cruelly disappointed because you couldn't come down to visit him in his home."

"We couldn't," said Mother Fisher, in a sorry voice, at seeing the other face.

"I understand--quite," said Tom's mother, with a gentle pressure of the hand she held. "And then the one pleasure he had was in picking out something for Polly."

"Oh, if the little red leather case had gone back to the poor old man!" ran through Mother Fisher's mind, possessing it at once.

"I don't think his judgment was good, Mrs. Fisher, in the selection," said Mrs. Selwyn, a small pink spot coming on either cheek; "but he loves Polly, and wanted to show it."

"And he was so good to think of it," cried Mother Fisher, her heart warming more and more toward the little old earl.

"And as he couldn't be turned from it, and his health is precarious if he is excited, why, there was nothing to be done about it. And then he insisted that Tom and I come off for a bit of a run on the Continent, the other children being with him. And as my big boy"--here a loving smile went all over the plain face, making it absolutely beautiful--"had worried down deep in his heart over the past, till I was more troubled than I can tell you, why, we came. And then God was good--for then we met you! Oh, Mrs. Fisher!"

She drew her hands by a sudden movement away, and put them on Mother Fisher's shoulders. And then that British matron, rarely demonstrative with her own children, even, leaned over and kissed Polly's mother.

"I can't see why it's so warm up here," said Polly, racing over to their bench, followed by the others. "Dear me, it's fairly hot." And she pulled off her jacket.

"Don't do that, Polly," said her mother.

"Oh, Mamsie, it's so very hot," said Polly; but she thrust her arms into the sleeves and pulled it on again.

"I know; but you've been running," said Mrs. Fisher, "and have gotten all heated up."

"Well, it's perfectly splendid to travel to places where we can run and race," said Polly, in satisfaction, throwing herself down on the rocks. The others all doing the same thing, Mr. King and the Parson and Mrs. Henderson found them, and pretty soon the group was a big one. "Well, well, we are all here together, no-- where is Mrs. Gray?" asked Mr. King, presently.

"She is resting in the hotel," said Mother Fisher, "fast asleep I think by this time."

"Yes," said Adela, "she is. I just peeked in on her, and she hasn't moved where you tucked her up on the lounge."

"Grandpapa," asked Polly, suddenly, from the centre of the group, "what makes it so very warm up here, when we are all surrounded by snow?"

"You ask me a hard thing," said old Mr. King. "Well, for one thing, we are very near the Italian border; those peaks over there, you know, --follow my walking- stick as I point it,--are in sunny Italy."

"Well, it is just like sunny Italy up here," said Polly, "I think," blinking, and pulling her little cap over her eyes.

"It's all the Italy you will get in the summer season," said Grandpapa. "You must wait for cold weather before I take one of you there."