Chapter XII. A Stern Chase
 

Where had Bob been going, and where was he going now? If these were not the first questions that I asked myself on coming away from him, they were at all events among my last thoughts that night, and as it happened, quite my first next morning. His voice had reached me through my bedroom window, on the head of a dream about himself. I got up and looked out; there was Bob Evers seeing the suit-case into the tiny train which brings your baggage (and yourself, if you like) to the very door of the Riffel Alp Hotel. Bob did not like and I watched him out of sight down the winding path threaded by the shining rails. He walked slowly, head and shoulders bent, it might be with dogged resolve, it might be in mere depression; there was never a glimpse of his face, nor a backward glance as he swung round the final corner, with his great-coat over his arm.

In spite of my curiosity as to his destination, I made no attempt to discover it for myself, but on consideration I was guilty of certain inquiries concerning that of Mrs. Lascelles. They had not to be very exhaustive; she had made no secret of her original plans upon leaving the Riffel Alp, and they did not appear to have undergone much change. I myself left the same forenoon, and lay that night amid the smells of Brigues, after a little tour of its hotels, in one of which I found the name of Mrs. Lascelles in the register, while in every one I was prepared to light upon Bob Evers in the flesh. But that encounter did not occur.

In the early morning I was one of a shivering handful who awaited the diligence for the Furka Pass; and an ominous drizzle made me thankful that my telegram of the previous day had been too late to secure me an outside seat. It was quite damp enough within. Nor did the day improve as we drove, or the view attract me in the least. It was at its worst as a sight, and I at mine as a sightseer. I have as little recollection of my fellow-passengers; but I still see the page in the hotel register at the Rhone Glacier, with the name I sought written boldly in its place, just twenty-four hours earlier.

The Furka Pass has its European reputation; it would gain nothing from my enthusiastic praises, had I any enthusiasm to draw upon, or the descriptive powers to do it justice. But what I best remember is the time it took us to climb those interminable zig-zags, and to shake off the too tenacious sight of the hotel in the hollow where I had seen a signature and eaten my lunch. Now I think of it, there were two couples who had come so far with us, but at the Rhone Glacier they exchanged their mutually demonstrative adieux, and I thought the couple who came on would never have done waving to the couple who stayed behind. They kept it up for at least an hour, and then broke out again at each of our many last glimpses of the hotel, now hundreds of feet below. That was the only diversion until these energetic people went to see the glacier cave at the summit of the pass. I am glad to remember that I preferred refreshment at the inn. After that, night fell upon a scene whose desolation impressed me more than its grandeur, and so in the end we rattled into Andermatt: here was a huge hotel all but empty, with a perfect tome of a visitors' book, and in it sure enough the fine free autograph which I was beginning to know so well.

"Yes, sare," said the concierge, "the season end suddenly mit the bad vedder at the beginning of the veek. You know that lady? She has been here last night; she go avay again to-day, on to Goeschenen and Zuerich. Yes, sare, she shall be in Zuerich to-night."

I was in Zuerich myself the night after. I knew the hotel to go to, knew it from Mrs. Lascelles herself, whose experience of continental hotels was so pathetically extensive. This was the best in Switzerland, so she had assured me in one of our talks: she could never pass through Zuerich without making a night of it at the Baur au Lac. But one night of it appeared to be enough, or so it had proved on this occasion, for again I missed her by a few hours. I was annoyed. I agreed with Mrs. Lascelles about this hotel. Since I had made up my mind to overtake her first or last, it might as well have been a comfortable place like this, where there was good cooking and good music and all the comforts which I may or may not have needed, but which I was certainly beginning to desire.

What a contrast to the place at which I found myself the following night. It was a place called Triberg, in the Black Forest, which I had never penetrated before, and certainly never shall again. It seemed to me an uttermost end of the earth, but it was raining when I arrived, and the rain never ceased for an instant while I was there. About a dozen hotel omnibuses met the train, from which only three passengers alighted; the other two were a young married couple at whom I would not have looked twice, though we all boarded the same lucky 'bus, had not the young man stared very hard at me.

"Captain Clephane," said he, "I guess you've forgotten me; but you may remember my best gurl?"

It was our good-natured young American from the Riffel Alp, who had not only joined in the daily laugh against himself up there, but must needs raise it as soon as ever he met one of us again. I rather think his best girl did not hear him, for she was staring through the streaming omnibus windows into an absolutely deserted country street, and I feared that her eyes would soon resemble the panes. She brightened, however, in a very flattering way, as I thought, on finding a third soul for one or both of them to speak to, for a change. I only wished I could have returned the compliment in my heart.

"Captain Clephane," continued the young bridegroom, "we came down Monday last. Say, who do you guess came down along with us?"

"A friend of yours," prompted the bride, as I put on as blank an expression as possible.

I opened my eyes a little wider. It seemed the only thing to do.

"Captain Clephane," said the bridegroom, beaming all over his good-humoured face, "it was a lady named Lascelles, and it's to her advice we owe this pleasure. We travelled together as far as Loocerne. We guess we'll put salt on her at this hotel."

"So does the Captain," announced the bride, who could not look at me without a smile, which I altogether declined to return. But I need hardly confess that she was right. It was from Mrs. Lascelles that I also had heard of the dismal spot to which we were come, as her own ultimate objective after Switzerland. It was the only address with which she had provided the concierge at the Riffel Alp. All day I had regretted the night wasted at Zuerich, on the chance of saving a day; but until this moment I had been sanguine of bringing my dubious quest to a successful issue here in Triberg. Now I was no longer even anxious to do so. I did not desire witnesses of a meeting which might well be of a character humiliating to myself. Still less should I have chosen for such witnesses a couple who were plainly disposed to put the usual misconstruction upon the relations of any man with any woman.

My disappointment was consequently less than theirs when we drove up to as gloomy a hostelry as I have ever beheld, with the blue-black forest smoking wet behind it, to find that here also the foul weather had brought the season to a premature and sudden end, literally emptying this particular hotel. Nor did the landlord give us the welcome we might have expected on a hasty consideration of the circumstances. He said that he had been on the point of shutting up that house until next season and hinted at less profit than loss upon three persons only.

"But there's a fourth person coming," declared the disconsolate bride. "We figured on finding her right here!"

"A Mrs. Lascelles," her husband explained.

"Been and gone," said the landlord, grinning sardonically. "Too lonely for the lady. She has arrived last night, and gone away again this morning. You will find her at the Darmstaedterhof, in Baden-Baden, unless she changes her mind on the way."

I caught his grin. It had been the same story, at every stage of my journey; the chances were that it would be the same thing again at Baden-Baden. There may have been something, however, of which I was unaware in my smile; for I found myself under close observation by the bride; and as our eyes met her hand slipped within her husband's arm.

"I guess we won't find her there," she said. "I guess we'll just light out for ourselves, and wish the captain luck."

A stern chase is proverbially protracted, but on dry land it has usually one end. Mine ended in Baden on the fifth (and first fine) day, rather early in the afternoon. On arrival I drove straight to the Darmstaedterhof, and asked to see no visitors' books, for the five days had taken the edge off my finesse, but inquired at once whether a Mrs. Lascelles was staying there or not. She was. It seemed incredible. Were they sure she had not just left? They were sure. But she was not in; at my request they made equally sure of that. She had probably gone to the Conversationshaus, to listen to the band. All Baden went there in the afternoon, to listen to that band. It was a very good band. Baden-Baden was a very good place. There was no better hotel in Baden-Baden than the Darmstaedterhof; there were no such baths in the other hotels, these came straight from the spring, at their natural temperature. They were matchless for rheumatism, especially in the legs. The old Empress, Augusta, when in Baden, used to patronise this very hotel and no other. They could show me the actual bath, and I myself could have pension (baths excluded) for eight marks and fifty a day. If I would be so kind as to step into the lift, I should see the room for myself, and then with my permission they would bring in my luggage and pay the cab.

All this by degrees, from a pale youth in frock-coat and forage-cap, and a more prosperous personage with pince-nez and a paunch (yet another concierge and my latest landlord respectively), while I stood making up my mind. The closing proposition was of some assistance to me. I had no luggage on the cab, of which the cabman's hat alone was visible, at the bottom of a flight of steps, at the far end of the flagged approach. I had left my luggage at the station, but I only recollected the fact upon being recalled from a mental forecast of the interview before me to these exceedingly petty preliminaries.

There and then I paid off the cab and found my own way to this Conversationshaus. I liked the look of the trim, fresh town in its perfect amphitheatre of pine-clad hills, covered in by a rich blue sky from which the last clouds were exhaling like breath from a mirror. The well-drained streets were drying clean as in a black frost; checkered with sharp shadows, twinkling with shop windows, and strikingly free from the more cumbrous forms of traffic. If this was Germany, I could dispense with certain discreditable prejudices. I had to inquire my way of a policeman in a flaming helm; because I could not understand his copious directions, he led me to a tiny bridge within earshot of the band, and there refused my proferred coin with the dignity of a Hohenzollern. Under the tiny bridge there ran the shallowest and clearest of little rivers. Up the white walls of the houses clambered a deal of Virginia creeper, brought on by the rain, and now almost scarlet in the strong sunlight. Presently at some gates there was a mark to pay, or it may have been two; immediate admittance to an avenue of fascinating shops, with an inner avenue of trees, little tables under them, and the crash of the band growing louder at every yard. Eventual access to a fine, broad terrace, a fine, long facade, a bandstand, and people listening and walking up and down, people listening and drinking beer or coffee at more little tables, people listening and reading on rows of chairs, people standing to listen with all their ears; but not for a long time the person I sought.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not for a very long time, but yet, at last, and all alone, among the readers on the chairs, deep in a Tauchnitz volume even here as in the Alps; more daintily yet not less simply dressed, in pink muslin and a big black hat; and blessed here as there with such blooming health, such inimitable freshness, such a general air of well-being and of deep content, as almost to disgust me after my whole week's search and my own hourly qualms.

So I found Mrs. Lascelles in the end, and so I saw her until she looked up and saw me; then the picture changed; but I am not going to describe the change.

"Well, really!" she cried out.

"It has taken me all the week to find you," said I, as I replaced my hat.

Her eyes flashed again.

"Has it, indeed! And now you have found me, aren't you satisfied? Pray have a good look, Captain Clephane. You won't find anybody else!"

Her meaning dawned on me at last.

"I didn't expect to, Mrs. Lascelles."

"Am I to believe that?"

"You must do as you please. It is the truth. Mrs. Lascelles, I have been all the week looking for you and you alone."

I spoke with some warmth, for not only did I speak the truth, but it had become more and more the truth at every stage of my journey since Brigues. Mrs. Lascelles leant back in her chair and surveyed me with less anger, but with the purer and more pernicious scorn.

"And what business had you to do that?" she asked calmly. "How dare you, I should like to know?"

"I dared," said I, "because I owed you a debt which, I felt, must be paid in person, or it would never be paid at all. Mrs. Lascelles, I owed and do owe you about the most abject apology man ever made! I have followed you all this way for no other earthly reason than to make it, in all sincere humility. But it has taken me more or less since Tuesday morning; and I can't kneel here. Do you mind if I sit down?"

Mrs. Lascelles drew in the hem of her pink muslin, with an all but insufferable gesture of unwilling resignation. I took the next chair but one, but, leaning my elbow on the chair-back between us, was rather the gainer by the intervening inches, which enabled me to study a perfect profile and the most wonderful colouring as I could scarcely have done at still closer range. She never turned to look at me, but simply listened while the band played, and people passed, and I said my say. It was very short: there was so little that she did not know. There was the excitement about Bob, his subsequent reappearance, our scene in his room and my last sight of him in the morning; but the bare facts went into few words, and there was no demand for details. Mrs. Lascelles seemed to have lost all interest in her latest lover; but when I tried to speak of my own hateful hand in that affair, to explain what I could of it, but to extenuate nothing, and to apologise from my heart for it all, then there was a change in her, then her blood mounted, then her bosom heaved, and I was silenced by a single flash from her eyes.

"Yes," said she, "you could let him think you were in earnest, you could pose as his rival, you could pretend all that! Not to me, I grant you! Even you did not go quite so far as that; or was it that you knew that I should see through you? You made up for it, however, the other night. That I never, never, never shall forgive. I, who had never seriously thought of accepting him, who was only hesitating in order to refuse him in the most deliberate and final manner imaginable--I, to have the word put into my mouth--by you! I, who was going in any case, of my own accord, to be told to go--by you! One thing you will never know, Captain Clephane, and that is how nearly you drove me into marrying him just to spite you and his miserable mother. I meant to do it, that night when I left you. It would have served you right if I had!"

She did not rise. She did not look at me again. But I saw the tears standing in her eyes, one I saw roll down her cheek, and the sight smote me harder than her hardest word, though more words followed in broken whispers.

"It wasn't because I cared ... that you hurt me as you did. I never did care for him ... like that. It was ... because ... you seemed to think my society contamination ... to an honest boy. I did care for him, but not like that. I cared too much for him to let him marry me ... to contaminate him for life!"

I repudiated the reiterated word with all my might. I had never used it, even in my thoughts; it had never once occurred to me in connection with her. Had I not shown as much? Had I behaved as though I feared contamination for myself? I rapped out these questions with undue triumph, in my heat, only to perceive their second edge as it cut me to the quick.

"But you were playing a part," retorted Mrs. Lascelles. "You don't deny it. Are you proud of it, that you rub it in? Or are you going to begin denying it now?"

Unfortunately, that was impossible. Tt was too late for denials. But, driven into my last corner, as it seemed, I relapsed for the moment into thought, and my thoughts took the form of a rapid retrospect of all the hours that this angry woman and I had spent together. I was introduced to her again by poor Bob. I recognised her again by the light of a match, and accosted her next morning in the strong sunshine. We went for our first walk together. We sat together on the green ledge overlooking the glaciers, and first she talked about herself, and then we both talked about Bob, and then Bob appeared in the flesh and gave me my disastrous idea. Then there was the day on the Findelen that we had all three spent together. Then there was the walk home from early church (short as it had been), the subsequent expedition to Zermatt and back, with its bright beginning and its clouded end. Up to that point, at all events, they had been happy hours, so many of them unburdened by a single thought of Bob Evers and his folly, not one of them haunted by the usual sense of a part that is played. I almost wondered as I realised this. I supposed it would be no use attempting to express myself to Mrs. Lascelles, but I felt I must say something before I went, so I said:

"I deny nothing, and I'm proud of nothing, but neither am I quite so ashamed as perhaps I ought to be. Shall I tell you why, Mrs. Lascelles? It may have been an insolent and an infamous part, as you imply; but I enjoyed playing it, and I used often to forget it was a part at all. So much so that even now I'm not so sure that it was one! There--I suppose that makes it all ten times worse. But I won't apologise again. Do you mind giving me that stick?"

I had rested the two of them against the chair between us. Mrs. Lascelles had taken possession of one, with which she was methodically probing the path, for there had been no time to draw their Alpine teeth. She did not comply with my request. She smiled instead.

"I mind very much," her old voice said. "Now we have finished fighting, perhaps you will listen to the Meistersinger--for it is worth listening to on that band--and try to appreciate Baden while you are here. There are no more trains for hours."

The wooded hills rose over the bandstand, against the bright blue sky. The shadow of the colonnade lay sharp and black beyond our feet, with people passing, and the band crashing, in the sunlight beyond. That was Baden. I should not have found it a difficult place to appreciate, a week or so before; even now it was no hardship to sit there listening to the one bit of Wagner that my ear welcomes as a friend, and furtively to watch my companion as she sat and listened too. You will perceive by what train of associations my eyes soon fell upon the Tauchnitz volume which she must have placed without thinking on the chair between us. I took it up. Heavens! It was one of the volumes of Browning's Poems. And back I sped in spirit to a green ledge overlooking the Gorner Glacier, to think what we had said about Browning up there, but only to remember how I had longed to be to Mrs. Lascelles what Catherine Evers had been to me. There were some sharp edges to the reminiscence, but I turned the pages while they did their worst, and so cut myself to the heart upon a sharper than them all. It was in a poem I remembered, a poem whose title pained me into glancing farther. And see what leapt to meet me from the printed page:

  "And I,--what I seem to my friend, you see:
    What I soon shall seem to his love, you guess:
  What I seem to myself, do you ask of me?
    No hero, I confess."

True, too true; no hero, indeed; anything in the wide world else! But that I should read it there by the woman's side! And yet, even that was no such coincidence; had we not talked about the poet, had I not implied what Catherine thought of him, what everybody ought to think?

Of a sudden a strange thrill stirred me; sidelong I glanced at my companion. She had turned her head away; her cheek was deeply dyed. She knew what I was doing; she might divine my thoughts. I shut the book lest she should see the vile title of a thing I had hitherto liked. And the Prizelied crashed back into the ear.