Over the Stelvio Pass by Robert Barr
There is no question about it, Tina Lenz was a flirt, as she had a perfect right to be, living as she did on the romantic shores of Como, celebrated in song, story, and drama as the lover's blue lake. Tina had many admirers, and it was just like her perversity to favor the one to whom her father most objected. Pietro, as the father truly said, was a beggarly Italian driver, glad of the few francs he got from the travellers he took over the humble Maloga to the Engadine, or over the elevated Stelvio to the Tyrol, the lowest and the highest passes in Europe. It was a sad blow to the hopes as well as the family pride of old Lenz when Tina defiantly announced her preference for the driver of the Zweispanner. Old Lenz came of a long and distinguished line of Swiss hotel-keepers, noted for the success with which they squeezed the last attainable centime from the reluctant traveller. It was bad enough that he had no son to inherit his justly celebrated hotel (pension rates for a stay of not less than eight days), but he hoped for a son-in-law, preferably of Swiss extraction, to whom he might, in his old age, hand over the lucrative profession of deferentially skinning the wealthy Englishman. And now Tina had deliberately chosen a reckless, unstable Italian who would, in a short time, scatter to the winds the careful accumulation of years.
"Pietro, the scoundrel, will not have one piastra of my money," cried the old man wrathfully, dropping into Italian as he was speaking about a native of Italy.
"No, I shall see that he doesn't," said the girl. "I shall hold the purse, and he must earn what he spends."
"But if you marry him, you will not have any of it."
"Oh yes, I shall, papa," said Tina confidently; "you have no one else to leave it to. Besides, you are not old, and you will be reconciled to our marriage long before there is any question of leaving money."
"Don't be so sure of that," returned the hotel-keeper, much mollified, because he was old and corpulent, and red in the face.
He felt that he was no match for his daughter, and that she would likely have her own way in the long run, but he groaned when he thought of Pietro as proprietor of the prosperous pension. Tina insisted that she would manage the hotel on the strictest principles of her ancestors, and that she would keep Pietro lounging about the place as a picturesque ornament to attract sentimental visitors, who seemed to see some unaccountable beauty about the lake and its surroundings.
Meanwhile Landlord Lenz promptly discharged Pietro, and cursed the day and hour he had first engaged him. He informed the picturesque young man that if he caught him talking to his daughter he would promptly have him arrested for some little thefts from travellers of which he had been guilty, although the landlord had condoned them at the time of discovery, probably because he had a fellow-feeling in the matter, and saw the making of a successful hotel proprietor in the Zweispanner driver. Pietro, on his part, to make things pleasant all round, swore that on the first favourable opportunity he would run six inches of knife into the extensive corporation of the landlord, hoping in that length of steel to reach a vital spot. The ruddy face of old Lenz paled at this threat, for the Swiss are a peace-loving people, and he told his daughter sadly that she was going to bring her father's grey hairs in sorrow to the grave through the medium of her lover's stiletto. This feat, however, would have been difficult to perform, as the girl flippantly pointed out to him, for the old man was as bald as the smooth round top of the Ortler; nevertheless, she spoke to her lover about it, and told him frankly that if there was any knife practice in that vicinity he need never come to see her again. So the young man with the curly black hair and the face of an angel, swallowed his resentment against his desired father-in-law, and promised to behave himself. He secured a position as driver at another hotel, for the season was brisk, and he met Tina when he could, at the bottom of the garden overlooking the placid lake, he on one side of the stone wall, she on the other.
If Landlord Lenz knew of these meetings he did not interfere; perhaps he was frightened of Pietro's stiletto, or perhaps he feared his daughter's tongue; nevertheless, the stars in their courses were fighting for the old man. Tina was naturally of a changeable disposition, and now that all opposition had vanished, she began to lose interest in Pietro. He could talk of little else than horses, and interesting as such conversation undoubtedly is, it palls upon a girl of eighteen leaning over a stone wall in the golden evening light that hovers above Como. There are other subjects, but that is neither here nor there, as Pietro did not recognise the fact, and, unfortunately for him, there happened to come along a member of the great army of the unemployed who did.
He came that way just in the nick of time, and proud as old Lenz was of his pension and its situation, it was not the unrivalled prospect (as stated in the hotel advertisements) that stopped him. It was the sight of a most lovely girl leaning over the stone wall at the foot of the garden, gazing down at the lake and singing softly to herself.
"By Jove!" said young Standish, "she looks as if she were waiting for her lover." Which, indeed, was exactly what Tina was doing, and it augured ill for the missing man that she was not the least impatient at his delay.
"The missing lover is a defect in the landscape which ought to be supplied," murmured young Standish as he unslung his knapsack, which, like that of the late John Brown, was strapped upon his back. He entered the pension and inquired the rates. Old Lenz took one glance at the knickerbockers, and at once asked twice as much as he would have charged a native. Standish agreed to the terms with that financial recklessness characteristic of his island, and the old man regretted he had not asked a third more.
"But never mind," he said to himself as the newly arrived guest disappeared to his room, "I shall make it up on the extras."
With deep regret it must be here admitted that young Standish was an artist. Artists are met with so often in fiction that it is a matter of genuine grief to have to deal with one in a narrative of fact, but it must be remembered that artists flock as naturally to the lake of Como as stock-brokers to the Exchange, and in setting down an actual statement of occurrences in that locality the unfortunate writer finds himself confronted with artists at every turn. Standish was an artist in water-colours, but whether that is a mitigation or an aggravation of the original offense the relater knoweth not. He speedily took to painting Tina amidst various combinations of lake and mountain scenery. Tina over the garden wall as he first saw her; Tina under an arch of roses; Tina in one of the clumsy but picturesque lake boats. He did his work very well, too. Old Landlord Lenz had the utmost contempt for this occupation, as a practical man should, but he was astonished one day when a passing traveller offered an incredible sum for one of the pictures that stood on the hall table. Standish was not to be found, but the old man, quite willing to do his guest a good turn, sold the picture. The young man, instead of being overjoyed at his luck, told the landlord, with the calm cheek of an artist, that he would overlook the matter this time, but it must not occur again. He had sold the picture, added Standish, for about one-third its real value. There was something in the quiet assurance of the youth that more than his words convinced old Lenz of the truth of his statement. Manner has much to do with getting a well-told lie believed. The inn-keeper's respect for the young man went up to the highest attainable point, and he had seen so many artists, too. But if such prices were obtained for a picture dashed off in a few hours, the hotel business wasn't in it as a money- making venture.
It must be confessed that it was a great shock to young Standish when he found that the fairy-like Tina was the daughter of the gross old stupid keeper of the inn. It would have been so nice if she had happened to be a princess, and the fact would have worked in well with the marble terrace overlooking the lake. It seemed out of keeping entirely that she should be any relation to old money-making Lenz. Of course he had no more idea of marrying the girl than he had of buying the lake of Como and draining it; still, it was such a pity that she was not a countess at least; there were so many of them in Italy too, surely one might have been spared for that pension when a man had to stay eight days to get the lowest rates. Nevertheless, Tina did make a pretty water-colour sketch. But a man who begins sliding down a hill such as there is around Como, never can tell exactly where he is going to bring up. He may stop halfway, or he may go head first into the lake. If it were to be set down here that within a certain space of time Standish did not care one continental objurgation whether Tina was a princess or a char-woman, the statement would simply not be believed, because we all know that Englishmen are a cold, calculating race of men, with long side whiskers and a veil round their hats when they travel.
It is serious when a young fellow sketches in water-colours a charming sylph-like girl in various entrancing attitudes; it is disastrous when she teaches him a soft flowing language like the Italian; but it is absolute destruction when he teaches her the English tongue and watches her pretty lips strive to surround words never intended for the vocal resources of a foreigner. As all these influences were brought to bear on Walter Standish, what chance did the young fellow have? Absolutely as little as has the un-roped man who misses his footing on the Matterhorn.
And Tina? Poor little girl, she was getting paid back with a vengeance for all the heart-aches she had caused--Italian, German, or Swiss variety. She fell helplessly in love with the stalwart Englishman, and realised that she had never known before what the word meant. Bitterly did she regret the sham battles of the heart that she had hitherto engaged in. Standish took it so entirely for granted that he was the first to touch her lips (in fact she admitted as much herself) that she was in daily, hourly terror lest he should learn the truth. Meanwhile Pietro unburdened his neglected soul of strange oily imprecations that might have sounded to the uneducated ear of Standish like mellifluous benedictions, notwithstanding the progress he was making in Italian under Tina's tuition. However, Pietro had one panacea for all his woes, and that he proceeded to sharpen carefully.
One evening Standish was floating dreamily through the purple haze, thinking about Tina of course, and wondering how her piquant archness and Southern beauty would strike his sober people at home. Tina was very quick and adaptable, and he had no doubt she could act to perfection any part he assigned to her, so he was in doubt whether to introduce her as a remote connexion of the reigning family of Italy, or merely as a countess in her own right. It would be quite easy to ennoble the long line of hotel-keepers by the addition of "di" or "de" or some such syllable to the family name. He must look up the right combination of letters; he knew it began with "d." Then the pension could become dimly "A castle on the Italian lakes, you know"; in fact, he would close up the pension as soon as he had the power, or change it to a palace. He knew that most of the castles in the Tyrol and many of the palaces of Italy had become boarding- houses, so why not reverse the process? He was sure that certain furnishing houses in London could do it, probably on the hire system. He knew a fashionable morning paper that was in the habit of publishing personal items at so much a line, and he thought the following would read well and be worth its cost:--
"Mr. Walter Standish, of St. John's Wood, and his wife, the Comtessa di Lenza, are spending the summer in the lady's ancestral home, the Palazzio di Lenza, on the lake of Como."
This bright vision pleased him for a moment, until he thought it would be just his luck for some acquaintance to happen along who remembered the Palazzio Lenza when it was the Pension Lenz--rates on application. He wished a landslide would carry buildings, grounds, and everything else away to some unrecognisable spot a few hundred feet down the mountain.
Thus it was that young Standish floated along with his head in the clouds, swinging his cane in the air, when suddenly he was brought sharply down to earth again. A figure darted out from behind a tree, an instinct rather than reason caused the artist to guard himself by throwing up his left arm. He caught the knife thrust in the fleshy part of it, and the pain was like the red-hot sting of a gigantic wasp. It flashed through his brain then that the term cold steel was a misnomer. The next moment his right hand had brought down the heavy knob of his stout stick on the curly head of the Italian, and Pietro fell like a log at his feet. Standish set his teeth, and as gently as possible drew the stiletto from his arm, wiping its blade on the clothes of the prostrate man. He thought it better to soil Pietro's suit than his own, which was newer and cleaner; besides, he held, perhaps with justice, that the Italian being the aggressor should bear any disadvantages arising from the attack. Finally, feeling wet at the elbow, he put the stiletto in his pocket and hurried off to the hotel.
Tina fell back against the wall with a cry at the sight of the blood. She would have fainted, but something told her that she would be well advised to keep her senses about her at that moment.
"I can't imagine why he should attack me," said Standish, as he bared his arm to be bandaged. "I never saw him before, and I have had no quarrel with any one. It could not have been robbery, for I was too near the hotel. I cannot understand it."
"Oh," began old Lenz, "it's easy enough to account for it. He----"
Tina darted one look at her father that went through him as the blade had gone through the outstretched arm. His mouth closed like a steel trap.
"Please go for Doctor Zandorf, papa," she said sweetly, and the old man went. "These Italians," she continued to Standish, "are always quarrelling. The villain mistook you for some one else in the dusk."
"Ah, that's it, very likely. If the rascal has returned to his senses, he probably regrets having waked up the wrong passenger."
When the authorities searched for Pietro they found that he had disappeared as absolutely as though Standish had knocked him through into China. When he came to himself and rubbed his head, he saw the blood on the road, and he knew his stroke had gone home somewhere. The missing knife would be evidence against him, so he thought it safer to get on the Austrian side of the fence. Thus he vanished over the Stelvio pass, and found horses to drive on the other side.
The period during which Standish loafed around that lovely garden with his arm in a sling, waited upon assiduously and tenderly by Tina, will always be one of the golden remembrances of the Englishman's life. It was too good to last for ever, and so they were married when it came to an end. The old man would still have preferred a Swiss innkeeper for a son-in-law, yet the Englishman was better than the beggarly Italian, and possibly better than the German who had occupied a place in Tina's regards before the son of sunny Italy appeared on the scene. That is one trouble in the continental hotel business; there is such a bewildering mixture of nationalities.
Standish thought it best not to go back to England at once, as he had not quite settled to his own satisfaction how the pension was to be eliminated from the affair and transformed into a palace. He knew a lovely and elevated castle in the Tyrol near Meran where they accepted passers-by in an unobtrusive sort of way, and there, he resolved, they would make their plans. So the old man gave them a great set-out with which to go over the pass, privately charging the driver to endeavour to get a return fare from Meran so as to, partly at least, cover the outlay. The carriage was drawn by five horses, one on each side of the pole and three in front. They rested the first night at Bormeo, and started early next day for over the pass, expecting to dine at Franzenshoehe within sight of the snowy Ortler.
It was late in the season and the weather was slightly uncertain, but they had a lovely Italian forenoon for going up the wonderful, zigzag road on the western side of the pass. At the top there was a slight sprinkling of snow, and clouds hung over the lofty Ortler group of peaks. As they got lower down a steady persistent rain set in, and they were glad to get to the shelter and warmth of the oblong stone inn at Franzenshoehe, where a good dinner awaited them. After dinner the weather cleared somewhat, but the clouds still obscured the tops of the mountains, and the roads were slippery. Standish regretted this, for he wanted to show his bride the splendid scenery of the next five miles where the road zigzags down to Trefoi, each elbow of the dizzy thoroughfare overhanging the most awful precipices. It was a dangerous bit of road, and even with only two horses, requires a cool and courageous driver with a steady head. They were the sole guests at the inn, and it needed no practised eye to see that they were a newly married couple. The news spread abroad, and every lounger about the place watched them get into their carriage and drive away, one hind wheel of the carriage sliding on its skid, and all breaks on.
At the first turning Standish started, for the carriage went around it with dangerous speed. The whip cracked, too, like a succession of pistol shots, which was unusual going down the mountain. He said nothing to alarm his bride, but thought that the driver had taken on more wine than was good for him at the inn. At the second turn the wheel actually slid against and bumped the stone post that was the sole guard from the fearful precipice below. The sound and shock sent a cold chill up the back of Standish, for he knew the road well and there were worse places to come. His arm was around his wife, and he withdrew it gently so as not to alarm her. As he did so she looked up and shrieked. Following her glance to the front window of their closed carriage, where the back of the driver is usually to be seen, he saw pressed against the glass the distorted face of a demon. The driver was kneeling on his seat instead of sitting on it, and was peering in at them, the reins drawn over his shoulder, and his back to the horses. It seemed to Standish that the light of insanity gleamed from his eyes, but Tina saw in them the revengeful glare of the vendetti; the rage of the disappointed lover.
"My God! that's not our driver," cried Standish, who did not recognise the man who had once endeavoured to kill him. He sprang up and tried to open the front window, but the driver yelled out--
"Open that window if you dare, and I'll drive you over here before you get halfway down. Sit still, and I take you as far as the Weisse Knott. That's where you are going over. There you'll have a drop of a mile (un miglio)."
"Turn to your horses, you scoundrel," shouted Standish, "or I'll break every bone in your body!"
"The horses know the way, Signor Inglese, and all our bones are going to be broken, yours and your sweet bride's as well as mine."
The driver took the whip and fired off a fusilade of cracks overhead, beside them, and under them. The horses dashed madly down the slope, almost sending the carriage over at the next turn. Standish looked at his wife. She had apparently fainted, but in reality had merely closed her eyes to shut out the horrible sight of Pietro's face. Standish thrust his arm out of the open window, unfastened the door, and at the risk of his neck jumped out. Tina shrieked when she opened her eyes and found herself alone. Pietro now pushed in the frame of the front window and it dropped out of sight, leaving him face to face with her, with no glass between them. "Now that your fine Inglese is gone, Tina, we are going to be married; you promised it, you know."
"You coward," she hissed; "I'd rather die his wife than live yours."
"You're plucky, little Tina, you always were. But he left you. I wouldn't have left you. I won't leave you. We'll be married at the chapel of the Three Holy Springs, a mile below the Weisse Knott; we'll fly through the air to it, Tina, and our bed will be at the foot of the Madatseh Glacier. We will go over together near where the man threw his wife down. They have marked the spot with a marble slab, but they will put a bigger one for us, Tina, for there's two of us."
Tina crouched in the corner of the carriage and watched the face of the Italian as if she were fascinated. She wanted to jump out as her husband had done, but she was afraid to move, feeling certain that if she attempted to escape Pietro would pounce down upon her. He looked like some wild beast crouching for a spring. All at once she saw something drop from the sky on the footboard of the carriage. Then she heard her husband's voice ring out--
"Here, you young fool, we've had enough of this nonsense."
The next moment Pietro fell to the road, propelled by a vigorous kick. His position lent itself to treatment of that kind. The carriage gave a bump as it passed over Pietro's leg, and then Tina thinks that she fainted in earnest, for the next thing she knew the carriage was standing still, and Standish was rubbing her hands and calling her pleasant names. She smiled wanly at him.
"How in the world did you catch up to the carriage and it going so fast?" she asked, a woman's curiosity prompting her first words.
"Oh, the villain forgot about the short cuts. As I warned him, he ought to have paid more attention to what was going on outside. I'm going back now to have a talk with him. He's lying on the road at the upper end of this slope."
Tina was instantly herself again.
"No, dearest," she said caressingly; "you mustn't go back. He probably has a knife."
"I'm not afraid."
"No, but I am, and you mustn't leave me."
"I would like to tie him up in a hard knot and take him down to civilisation bumping behind the carriage as luggage. I think he's the fellow who knifed me, and I want to find out what his game is."
Here Tina unfortunately began to faint again. She asked for wine in a far-off voice, and Standish at once forgot all about the demon driver. He mounted the box and took the reins himself. He got wine at the little cabin of the Weisse Knott, a mile or two farther down. Tina, who had revived amazingly, probably on account of the motion of the carriage, shuddered as she looked into the awful gulf and saw five tiny toy houses in the gloom nearly a mile below.
"That," said Standish, "is the chapel of the Three Holy Springs. We will go there to-night, if you like, from Trefoi."
"No, no!" cried Tina, shivering. "Let us get out of the mountains at once."
At Trefoi they found their own driver awaiting them.
"What the devil are you doing here, and how did you get here?" hotly inquired Standish.
"By the short cuts," replied the bewildered man. "Pietro, one of master's old drivers, wanted--I don't know why--to drive you as far as Trefoi. Where is he, sir?"
"I don't know," said Standish. "We saw nothing of him. He must have been pushed off the box by the madman. Here, jump up and let us get on."
Tina breathed again. That crisis was over.
They live very happily together, for Tina is a very tactful little woman.