No Hero by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XI. The Lion's Mouth
It was a chilly morning, with rather a high wind; from the haze about the mountains of the Zermatt valley, which were all that I could see from my bedroom window, it occurred to me that I might look in vain for the Matterhorn from the other side of the hotel. It was still visible, however, when I came down, a white cloud wound about its middle like a cloth, and the hotel telescope already trained upon its summit from the shelter of the glass veranda.
"See anybody?" I asked of a man who sat at the telescope as though his eye was frozen to the lens. He might have been witnessing the most exciting adventure, where the naked eye saw only rock and snow, and cold grey sky; but he rose at last with a shake of the head, a great gaunt man with kind keen eyes, and the skin peeled off his nose.
"No," said he, "I can't see anybody, and I'm very glad I can't. It's about as bad a morning for it as you could possibly have; yet last night was so fine that some fellows might have got up to the hut, and been foolish enough not to come down again. But have a look for yourself."
"Oh, thanks," said I, considerably relieved at what I heard, "but if you can't see anybody I'm sure I can't. You have done it yourself, I daresay?"
The gaunt man smiled demurely, and the keen eyes twinkled in his flayed face. He was, indeed, a palpable mountaineer.
"What, the Matterhorn?" said he, lowering his voice and looking about him as if on the point of some discreditable admission. "Oh, yes, I've done the Matterhorn, back and front and both sides, with and without guides; but everybody has, in these days. It's nothing when you know the ropes and chains and things. They've got everything up there now except an iron staircase. Still, I should be sorry to tackle it to-day, even if they had a lift!"
"Do you think guides would?" I asked, less reassured than I had felt at first.
"It depends on the guides. They are not the first to turn back, as a rule; but they like wind and mist even less than we do. The guides know what wind and mist mean."
I now understood the special disadvantages of the day and realised the obvious dangers. I could only hope that either Bob Evers or his guides had shown the one kind of courage required by the occasion, the moral courage of turning back. But I was not at all sure of Bob. His stimulus was not that of the single-minded, level-headed mountaineer; in his romantic exaltation he was capable of hailing the very perils as so many more means of grace in the sight of Mrs. Lascelles; yet without doubt he would have repudiated any such incentive, and that in all the sincerity of his simple heart. He did not know himself as I knew him.
My fears were soon confirmed. Returning to the glass veranda, after the stock breakfast of the Swiss hotel, with its horseshoe rolls and fabricated honey, I found the telescope the centre of an ominous crowd, on whose fringe hovered my new friend the mountaineer.
"We were wrong," he muttered to me. "Some fools are up there, after all."
"How many?" I asked quickly.
"I don't know. There's no getting near the telescope now, and won't be till the clouds blot them out altogether."
I looked out at the Matterhorn. The loincloth of cloud had shaken itself out into a flowing robe, from which only the brown skull of the mountain protruded in its white skull-cap.
"There are three of them," announced a nasal voice from the heart of the little crowd. "A great long chap and two guides."
"He can't possibly know that," remarked the mountaineer to me, "but let's hope it is so."
"They're as plain as pike-staffs," continued Quinby, whose bent blond head I now distinguished, as he occupied the congenial post of Sister Anne. "They seem stuck.... No, they're getting up on to the snow-slope, and the front man's cutting steps."
"Then they're all right for the present," said the mountaineer. "It's the getting down that's ticklish."
"You can see the rope blowing about between them ... what a wind there must be ... it's bent out taut like a bow, you can see it against the snow, and they're bending themselves more than forty-five degrees to meet it."
"All very well going up," murmured the mountaineer: there was a sinister innuendo in the curt comments of the practical man.
I turned into the hall. It, however, was quite deserted. I had hoped I might see something of Mrs. Lascelles; she was not one of those in the glass veranda. I now looked in the drawing-room, but neither was she there. Returning to the empty hall, I passed a minute peering through the locked glass door of the pigeon-holes in which the careful concierge files the unclaimed letters. There was nothing for me that I could discern, in the C pigeon-hole; but next door but one, under E, there lay on the very top a letter which caught my eye and more. It had not been through any post. It was a note directed to R. Evers, Esq., in a hand that I knew instinctively to be that of Mrs. Lascelles, though I had never seen it in my life before. It was a good hand, but large and bold and downright as herself.
The concierge stood in the doorway, one eye on the disappearing Matterhorn, one on the experts and others in animated conclave round the still inaccessible telescope. I touched the concierge on the arm.
"Did you see Mrs. Lascelles this morning?"
The man's eyes opened before his lips.
"She has gone away, sir."
"I know," I said, having indeed divined no less. "What train did she catch?"
"The first one from here. That also catches the early train from Zermatt."
"I am sorry," I said after a pause. "I hoped to see Mrs. Lascelles before she went; now I must write. She left you an address, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
"I shall ask you for it later on. No letters for me, I suppose?"
"I will look again."
And I looked with him, over his shoulder; but there was nothing; and the note for Bob Evers now inspired me with a tripartite blend of curiosity, envy, and apprehension. I would have had a last word from the same hand myself; had it been never so scornful, this silent scorn was the harder sort to bear. Also I wanted much to know what her last word was to Bob--and dreaded more what it might be.
There remained the unexpected triumph of having got rid of my lady after all. That is not to be belittled even now. It is a triumph to succeed in any undertaking, more especially when one has abandoned one's own last hope of such success. The unpleasant character of this particular emprise made its eventual accomplishment in some ways the greater matter for congratulation in my eyes. At least I had done my part. I had come to hate it, but the thing was done, and it had been a fairly difficult thing to do. It was impossible not to plume oneself a little on the whole, but the feeling was a superficial one, with deeper and uneasier feelings underneath. Still, I had practically redeemed my impulsive promise to Catherine Evers; her son and this woman once parted, it should be easy to keep them apart, and my knowledge of the woman forbade me to deny the fullest significance to her departure. She had gone away to stay away--from Bob. She had listened to me the less with her ears, because her reason and her heart had been compelled to heed. To be sure, she saw the unsuitability, the impossibility, as clearly as we did. But it was I who, at all events, had helped to make her see it; wherefore I deserved well of Catherine Evers, if of no other person in the world.
Oddly enough, this last consideration afforded me least satisfaction; it seemed to bring home to me by force of contrast the poor figure that I must assuredly cut in the eyes of the other two, the still poorer opinion that they would have of me if ever they knew all. I did not care to pursue this train of thought. It was a subject upon which I was not prepared to examine myself; to change it, I thought of Bob's present peril, which I had almost forgotten as I lounged abstractedly in the empty hall. If anything were to happen to him, in the vulgar sense! What an irony, what poetic punishment for us survivors! And yet, even as I rehearsed the ghastly climax in my mind, I told myself that the mother would rather see him even thus, than married to a widow who had also been divorced; it was the younger woman who would never forgive me, or herself.
Disappointed faces met me on my next visit to the veranda. The little crowd there had dwindled to a group. I could have had the telescope now for as long as I liked: the upper part of the Matterhorn was finally and utterly effaced and swallowed up by dense white mist and cloud. My friend the mountaineer looked grave, but his disfigured face did not wear the baulked expression of others to which he drew my attention.
"It is like the curtain coming down with the man's head still in the lion's mouth," said he.
"I hope," said I devoutly, "that you don't seriously think there's any analogy?"
The climber looked at me steadily, and then smiled.
"Well, no, perhaps I don't think it quite so bad as all that. But it's no use pretending it isn't dangerous. May I ask if you know who the foolhardy fellow is?"
I said I did not know, but mentioned my suspicion, only begging my climbing friend not to let the name go any farther. It was in too many mouths already, in quite another connection, I was going on to explain; but the mountaineer nodded, as much as to warn me that even he knew all about that. It was Bob's office, however, to provide the hotel with its sensation while he remained, and he was not allowed to perform anonymously very long. His departure over night leaked out. I was asked if it was true. The flight of Mrs. Lascelles was the next discovery; desperate deductions were drawn at once. She had jilted the unlucky youth and sent him in utter recklessness on his intentionally suicidal ascent. Nobody any longer expected to see him come down alive; so much I gathered from the fragments of conversation that reached my ears; and never was better occupation for a bad day than appeared to be afforded by the discussion of the supposititious tragedy in all its imaginary details. As, however, the talk invariably abated at my approach, giving place to uncomplimentary glances in my direction, I could not but infer that public opinion had assigned me an unenviable part in the piece. Perhaps I deserved it, though not from their point of view.
The afternoon was at once a dreariness and a dread. There was no ray of sun without, no sort of warmth within. The Matterhorn never reappeared, but seemed the grimmer monster for this sinister invisibility. I gathered that there was real occasion for anxiety, if not for alarm, and I nursed mine chiefly in my own room until I heard the news when I went down for my letters. Bob Evers had walked in as though nothing had happened, and gone straight up to his room with a note that the concierge handed him. Some one had asked him whether it was he who had been up the Matterhorn in the morning, and young Evers had vouchsafed the barest affirmative compatible with civility. The sunburnt climber was my informant.
"And I don't mind telling you it is a relief to me," he added, "and to everybody, though I shouldn't wonder if there was a little unconscious disappointment in the air as well. I congratulate you, for I could see you were anxious, and I must find an opportunity of congratulating your young friend himself."
Meanwhile no such opportunity was afforded me, though I quite expected and was fully prepared for another visit from Bob in my room. I waited for him there until dinner-time, but he never came, and I was beginning to wish he would. It was like the wrapping of the Matterhorn in mist; it only widened the field of apprehension; and yet it was not for me to go to the boy. My unrest was further aggravated by a letter which I had just received from the boy's mother in answer to my first to her. It was not a very dreadful letter; but I only trusted that no evil impulse had caused Catherine to write in anything like the same strain to Bob; for neither was it a very charitable letter, nor one that a man could be glad to get from the woman whom he had set out on an enduring pinnacle. There was only this to be said for it, that years ago I had sought in vain for a really human weakness in Catherine Evers, and now at last I had found one. She was rather too human about Mrs. Lascelles.
I looked for Bob both at and after dinner, but we were never within speaking distance and I fancied he avoided even my eye. What had Mrs. Lascelles said? He looked redder and browner and rougher in the face, but I heard that he would hardly open his lips at table, that he was almost surly on the subject of his exploit. Everybody else appeared to me to be speaking of it, or of Bob himself; but I had him on my nerves and may well have formed an exaggerated impression about it all. Only I do not forget some of the things I did overhear that day, and night; and they now had the effect of sending me in search of Bob, since Bob would not come near me. "I will have it out with him," I grimly decided, "and then get out of this myself by the first train going." I had had quite enough of the place that had enchanted me up to the last four-and-twenty hours. I began to see myself back in Elm Park Gardens. There, at least, if also there alone, I should get some credit for what I had done.
It was no use looking for Bob upon the terrace now; yet I did look there, among other obvious places, before I could bring myself to knock at his door. There was a light in his room, so I knew that he was there, and he cried out admittance in so sharp a tone that I fancied he also knew who knocked. I found him packing in his shirt-sleeves. He received me with a stare in exact keeping with his tone. What on earth had Mrs. Lascelles said?
"Going away?" I asked, as a mere preliminary, and I shut the door behind me. Bob followed the action with raised eyebrows, then flung me the shortest possible affirmative, as he bent once more over the suit-case on the bed.
But in a few seconds he looked up.
"Anything I can do for you, Clephane?"
"That depends where you are going."
Bob went on packing with a smile. I guessed where he was going. "I thought there might be something pressing," he remarked, without looking up again.
"There is," said I. "There is something you can do for me on the spot. You can try to believe that I have not meant to be quite such a skunk as I may have seemed--to you," I was on the point of adding, but I stopped short of that advisedly, as I thought of Mrs. Lascelles also.
"Oh, that's all right," said Bob, in a would-be airy tone that carried its own contradiction. "All's fair, according to the proverb; I no more blame you than you would have blamed me. I hope, on the contrary, that I may congratulate you."
And he stood up with a look which, coupled with his words, made it my turn to stare.
"Indeed you may not," said I.
"Aren't you engaged to her?" he asked.
"Good God, no!" I cried. "What made you think so?"
"Everything!" exclaimed Bob, after a moment's pause of obvious bewilderment. "I--you see--I had a note from Mrs. Lascelles herself!"
"Yes?" said I, carefully careless, but I wanted more than ever to know that missive's gist.
"Only a few lines," Bob went on, ruefully; "they are the first thing I heard or saw when I got down, and they almost made me wish I'd come down with a run! Well, it's no use talking about it, I only thought you'd know. It was the usual smack in the eye, I suppose, only nicely put and all that. She didn't tell me where she was going, or why; she told me I had better ask you."
"But you wouldn't condescend."
Bob gave a rather friendly little laugh.
"I said I'd see you damned!" he admitted. "But of course I thought you were the lucky man. I still half believe you are!"
"Well, I'm not."
"Do you mean to say that she's refused you too?"
"She hasn't had the chance."
Bob's eyes opened to an infantile width.
"But you told me you were in earnest!" he urged.
"As much in earnest as you were, I believe was what I said."
"That's the same thing," returned Bob, sharply. "You may not think it is. I don't care what you think. But I'm very sorry you said you were in earnest if you were not."
And his tone convinced me that he was no longer commiserating himself; he was sorry on some new account, and the evident reality of his regret filled me in turn with all the qualms of a guilty conscience.
"Why are you sorry?" I demanded.
"Oh, not on my own account," said Bob. "I'm delighted, personally, of course."
"Then do you mean to say--you actually told her--I was as much in earnest as you were?"
Bob Evers smiled openly in my face; it was the only revenge he ever took; and even it was tempered by the inextinguishable sweetness of expression and the childlike wide-eyed candour which were Bob's even in the hour of his humiliation, and will be, one hopes, all his days.
"Not in so many words," he said, "but I am afraid I did tell her in effect. You see, I took you at your word. I thought it was quite true. I'm awfully sorry, Duncan. But it really does serve you right!"
I made no answer. I was looking at the suit-case on the bed. Bob seemed to have lost all interest in his packing. I turned to leave him without a word.
"I am awfully sorry!" he was the one to say again. I began to wonder when he would see all round the point, and how it would affect his feeling (to say nothing of his actions) when he did. Meanwhile it was Bob who was holding out his hand.
"So am I," I said, taking it.
And for once I, too, was not thinking about myself.