The Crystal Hunters, by George Manville Fenn.
A tense tale, such as we expect of George Manville Fenn. A group of English people are in the Swiss Alps. But it is not just the beauties of the scenery they are after, but crystals which may sometimes be found in caves near the top of the glaciers. They manage to find a guide who promises to be discreet about what they do. But someone else is on the mountain, and he is just as interested in what they are up to, and what they find, as they are themselves.
Of course, as we expect in a Manville Fenn novel, there are tense moments when people fall down crevasses, when there are avalanches and ice-falls, when icy rocks break off and come tumbling towards them. But what about the unknown person who is making off with their hard-won specimens?
There is a surprise ending. It is a good readable book, well worth the effort of making an audio book and listening to it.
THE CRYSTAL HUNTERS, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
TWO MEN AND A BOY.
"Steady there! Stop! Hold hard!"
"What's the matter, Mr Dale?"
"Matter, Saxe, my boy? Well, this. I undertook to take you back to your father and mother some day, sound in wind and limb; but if you begin like that, the trip's over, and we shall have to start back for England in less than a week—at least, I shall, with my luggage increased by a case containing broken boy."
There was a loud burst of hearty laughter from the manly-looking lad addressed, as he stood, with his hands clinging and his head twisted round, to look back: for he had spread-eagled himself against a nearly perpendicular scarp of rock which he had begun to climb, so as to reach a patch of wild rhododendrons.
There was another personage present, in the shape of a sturdy, muscular-looking man, whose swarthy face was sheltered by a wide-brimmed soft felt hat, very much turned up at the sides, and in whose broad band was stuck a tuft of the pale grey, starry-looking, downy plant known as the Edelweiss. His jacket was of dark, exceedingly threadbare velvet; breeches of the same; and he wore gaiters and heavily nailed lace-up boots; his whole aspect having evoked the remarks, when he presented himself at the door of the chalet:
"I say, Mr Dale, look here! Where is his organ and his monkey? This chap has been asking for you—for Herr Richard Dale, of London."
"Yes, I sent for him. It is the man I am anxious to engage for our guide."
For Melchior Staffeln certainly did look a good deal like one of the "musicians" who infest London streets with "kists o' whustles," as the Scottish gentleman dubbed them—or much noisier but less penetrating instruments on wheels.
He was now standing wearing a kind of baldric across his chest, in the shape of a coil of new soft rope, from which he rarely parted, whatever the journey he was about to make, and leaning on what, at first sight, seemed to be a stout walking-stick with a crutch handle, but a second glance revealed as an ice-axe, with, a strong spike at one end, and a head of sharp-edged and finely pointed steel, which Saxe said made it look like a young pick-axe.
This individual had wrinkled his face up so much that his eyes were nearly closed, and his shoulders were shaking as he leaned upon the ice-axe, and indulged in a long, hearty, nearly silent laugh.
"Ah! it's no laughing matter, Melchior," said the broad-shouldered, bluff, sturdy-looking Englishman. "I don't want to begin with an accident."
"No, no," said the guide, whose English seemed to grow clearer as they became more intimate. "No accidents. It is the Swiss mountain air getting into his young blood. In another week he will bound along the matt, or dash over the green alp like a goat, and in a fortnight be ready to climb a spitz like a chamois."
"Yes, that's all very well, my man; but I prefer a steady walk. Look here, Saxe!"
"I'm listening, Mr Dale," said the lad.
"Then just get it into your brain, if you can, that we are not out on a schoolboy trip, but upon the borders of new, almost untried ground, and we shall soon be mounting places that are either dangerous or safe as you conduct yourself."
"All right, Mr Dale; I'll be careful," said the lad.
"Never fear, herr," cried the guide; "I will not take you anywhere dangerous—only to places where your fellow-countrymen have well marked the way."
"Thank you," was the reply, in so peculiar a tone that the guide looked at the speaker curiously.
"Yes," continued the latter; "I'll have a chat with you presently."
"I am ready, herr," said the man, rather distantly now. "You have seen my book of testimonials, written by many English and German voyagers who love the mountains!"
"Yes," said Richard Dale quietly; "and I want this boy to know what he has to do."
"All right, Mr Dale," said the lad; "you may trust me."
"That's understood, then. You must obey me without question instantly, just as I shall have to obey Melchior Staffeln. I have been out here a dozen times before, and know a great deal; but he has been here all his life, and has inherited the existence of his father and grandfather, both guides. Now, is this understood!"
"Yes, of course, Mr Dale," said the boy, who had been impatiently throwing stones into the middle of the little river flowing through the valley; "but you are not going to take me for a walk every day, and make us hold one another's hands?"
"I'm going to make you do exactly what Melchior thinks best," said his companion, firmly. "And let me tell you, young fellow, there will be times, if you care to go with me, when we shall be very glad to hold each other's hands: up yonder, for instance, along that shelf, where you can see the sheep."
He pointed toward where, high up the side of the narrow valley, a group of white-woolled sheep could be seen browsing.
"What, those?" said the lad. "That's nothing. I thought these mountains and places would be ever so high."
"Ah! I suppose so," said Dale dryly. "Why, you young ignoramus—you young puppy, with your eyes not yet half opened—do you know how high those sheep are above where we stand?"
"Those?" said the lad, who had been looking rather contemptuously at everything he had seen since he had been on the Continent. "Perhaps a couple of hundred feet—say three."
"Three hundred, Saxe? Why, my lad, they are a thousand feet if they are an inch."
"Two thousand," said the guide quietly.
"What!" cried the boy. "Then how high is that point just peeping over the hills there, right up the valley?"
He pointed to a dazzling snowy peak which ran up like a roughly shaped, blunted spear head glistening in the morning air.
"Das Dusselhorn," said the guide. "Hochte spitze? Nein."
"What is the height, Melchior?"
"How high, herr?—how tall? Eleven thousand English feet."
"Why it does not look much higher than Saint Paul's."
"You must remember that you are amongst the great peaks," said Dale, "and that it takes time to educate your eyes to the size of everything about you."
"But it looks as if you could get to the top in an hour," said Saxe.
"Does it?" said Dale, smiling. "Then what do you say to this?" And he pointed up at the huge mass of rock, streaked with ravines full of snow, which formed one side of the valley in which they stood.
"Lenstock," said the guide.
"How long would it take us to get up to the top, Melchior?"
"Too late to-day, herr. Start at three o'clock with lanthorn while the schnee-snow is hard. Ten hours to go up, seven to come down."
Richard Dale looked at his young companion, whose forehead was wrinkled, as he stared up at the huge mass of rock from its lower green alps or pastures, up over the grey lichened stone, to where the streakings of white snow began, and then higher and higher to the region of everlasting ice.
"Well," he said at last, as he lowered his eyes to the guide and the strong, resolute-looking man beside him, "I—"
A quick change came over him, and with a laughing look he continued quickly:
"Not travellers' tales, eh?"
"Travellers' tales?" said the guide slowly.
"He means, are you deceiving him?" said Dale.
The guide shook his head gravely.
"The great mountains are too solemn to speak anything but truth in their shade."
"Well," said Saxe slowly, "then it's the mountains that deceive."
"Wait a bit, boy, and you'll soon learn how great they are. It takes time. Now, understand this: I do not want to interfere with your enjoyment; but if we are to carry out my plans, it must be work and not play."
"Why not both?" said Saxe merrily.
"Because we must husband our strength, so as to always have a little left to use in an emergency. Now, then, we understand each other, do we not?"
"Yes, Mr Dale."
The guide nodded his head good-humouredly; but he did not stir.
"Well?" said the Englishman.
"Let us understand each other," said the guide quietly. "Those who go up into the mountains must be brothers. Now your life is in danger, and I save you; next my life is in peril, and you save me. A guide is something more than one who goes to show the way."
"Of course," said Richard Dale, eyeing the man curiously: "that is why I have chosen you. Friends told me that Melchior Staffeln was a man whom I might trust."
"I thank them," said the guide. "And the herr wishes me to be his guide for days and weeks or months, and show him the way up the great mountains as I have shown others?"
"No!" said Dale sharply. "I want you to take me right in among the heights, passes and glaciers where the visitors do not go."
The guide looked at him fixedly.
"Why? what for?" he said. "You did not tell me this when you came up to the chalet last night, and sent for me."
"No. I tell you now."
"Why do you wish to go? There may be danger."
"I'll tell you. I want to see the mountains and study them. I would search for metals and specimens of the stones in the higher rocks."
"Hah!" said the guide. "To see if there is gold and silver and precious stones?"
"If it is known you will be stopped by the magistrate of the commune."
"Why? I do not want to rob the country."
"But the gold—the silver."
"Let's find them first, man; and see what the chief magistrate says then. Can you lead me to places where I can find these?"
The man was silent for a few minutes. Then,—"Will the herr be straightforward and honest to my country, and if he finds such treasures in the mountains, will he go to the magistrates and get leave to work them?"
"Of that you may be sure. Will you come?"
The man was silent and thoughtful again for a minute.
"If the people know, we shall be watched night and day."
"They must not know."
"No, they must not know."
"Then you will come?"
"Yes," said the man, "I will come."
"Then, once more, forward," said Dale. "Saxe, my lad, our search for Nature's treasures has begun."
AN ALPINE VALLEY.
The track for some distance up the valley was so rugged and narrow that the little party had to go in single file; but after a time they came upon a more open part, less encumbered with rock, and, with the lad on ahead, Richard Dale strode up abreast of the guide, and, taking out his case, lit a cigar, and offered one to the Swiss.
The guide shook his head.
"No, thank you, herr," he said; "I seldom smoke anything but my pipe."
They went on for a while in silence, the only sound falling upon their ears being the continuous roar of the torrent-like river which rushed down the valley in a narrow chasm far below their feet—one series of thundering cascades, all foam and milky glacier water.
Patches of pine forest, with the trees crowded close together, every stem straight as an arrow, ran for some distance up the sides of the vale; but there was no sign or note of bird. All was solemn and still, save that deep-toned roar.
Saxe stopped suddenly, waited till they came near, and held up his hand.
"What is it?" said Dale.
"Isn't it wonderful, Mr Dale? Only two days ago in London, and here we are in this wild place! Why, you can't hear a sound but the water!"
Almost as he spoke he bounded from the spot where he was standing, and ran a few yards in alarm.
For from somewhere unseen and high above, there was a sudden roar, a terrific crash, then a rushing sound, followed by a dead silence of a few seconds, and then the earth seemed to receive a quivering blow, resulting in a boom like that of some monstrous gun, and the noise now ran up the valley, vibrating from side to side, till it died away in a low moan.
The boy looked wildly from one to the other, to see that his uncle was quite unmoved and that the guide was smiling at him.
"Then that was thunder?" he said inquiringly.
"No; a big piece of rock split off and fell," replied the guide.
"Is there no danger?"
"It would have been dangerous if we had been there."
"But where is 'there'?"
"Up yonder," said the guide, pointing over the pine-wood toward the top of the wall of rock, a perpendicular precipice fully three thousand feet in height. "The rock split off up the mountain somewhere, rushed down, and then fell."
"Can we see?"
"Oh yes; I could find the place," said the guide, looking at Dale.
"No, no: we will go on," said the latter. "It would take us two or three hours. That sort of thing is often going on out here, Saxe."
"But why did it fall? Is any one blasting rock over there?"
"Yes, Nature: blasting with cold and heat."
Saxe looked at him inquiringly.
"You'll soon understand all this, my lad," said Dale. "The rocks high up the mountains are always crumbling down."
"Crumbling? I don't call that crumbling."
"Call it what you like; but that was a crumb which fell down here, my lad. You see the snow and ice over yonder?"
"Well, of course that means that there is constant freezing going on there, except when the sun is blazing down at midday."
"Yes, I understand that," said Saxe.
"Well, the rock gets its veins charged with water from the melting of the snow in the daytime, and at night it freezes again; the water expands in freezing, and splits the rock away, but it does not slip, because it is kept in position by the ice. By-and-by, on an extra hot day, that ice melts, and, there being nothing to support it, the mass of rock falls, and drives more with it, perhaps, and the whole comes thundering down."
"I should like to see how big the piece was," said Saxe; "it must have been close here."
"No," said the guide; "perhaps two miles away."
Dale made a sign, and they went on again.
"Wait a bit, Saxe, and you'll see plenty of falling rock. I dare say we shall be cannonaded by stones some day."
"But shall we see an avalanche!"
"It's a great chance if we see one of the great falls which fill valleys and bury villages; but if you keep your eyes open I dare say we shall see several small ones to-day."
The lad glanced quickly up, and the meaning of that look was read directly.
"No," said Dale quietly, "I am not joking, but speaking frankly to one whom I have chosen as my companion in this enterprise. Come, Saxe, you and I must now be more like helpmates—I mean, less of man and boy, more like two men who trust each other."
"I shall be very glad," said the boy eagerly.
"Then we start so from this moment. We'll forget you are only sixteen or seventeen."
"Yes. For, without being gloomy, we must be serious. As Melchior says, 'the mountains are solemn in their greatness.' Look!"
They had just turned the corner of a huge buttress of rock, and Dale pointed up the valley to the wonderful panorama of mountain and glacier which suddenly burst upon their view. Snowy peak rising behind green alps dotted with cattle, and beyond the glittering peak other pyramids and spires of ice with cols and hollows full of unsullied snow, like huge waves suddenly frozen, with their ridges, ripples, and curves preserved.
"It is grand!" cried the boy, gazing excitedly before him at the most wondrous picture that had ever met his eyes.
"Yes," said Dale; "and it has the advantage that every step we take brings us to something grander. That is only your first peep into Nature's wilds, some of which are as awful as they are vast. There goes one of the inhabitants."
For at that moment, soaring high above the valley, a huge bird floated between them and the intensely blue sky.
"Yes; the lammergeyer—the Alpine eagle."
"But what a name!" said Saxe.
"Suitable enough," said Dale quietly. "We call our little bird of prey a sparrow-hawk. Well, this bird—lammergeyer—is the one which preys on lambs."
The eagle soared higher and higher till it was well above the perpendicular wall of rock on their left, and then glided onward toward the snow, rapidly passing out of sight; while the trio tramped on, passing a chalet here and another there, with its wooden shingled roof laden with great stones to keep all intact against the terrific winds which at times sweep down the valley from the ice ahead. Now their way lay down by the foaming torrent, half choked with ragged pine trunks, torn out of their birthplaces by tempests, or swept away by downfalls of snow or rock; then they panted up some zigzag, faintly marked, where it was impossible to follow the bed of the stream; and as they climbed higher fresh visions of grandeur opened out before them, though the path was so rugged that much of the view was lost in the attention that had to be given to where they placed their feet. But from time to time a halt was called, a geological hammer produced, and a piece of the rock, that had come bounding down from half a mile above them, was shifted and examined—pure limestone, now granite of some form, or hornblende, while the guide rested upon the head of his axe, and looked on.
"You English are a wonderful people," he said at last.
"Why?" said Saxe.
"A Frenchman would come up here—no, he would not: this would be too difficult and rough; he would get hot and tired, and pick his way for fear of hurting his shiny boots. But if he did he would seek two or three bright flowers to wear in his coat, he would look at the mountains, and then sit down idle."
"And the English?" said Saxe.
"Ah, yes, you English! Nothing escapes you, nor the Americans. You are always looking for something to turn into money."
"Which we are not doing now," said Dale quietly. "But very few people come up here."
"Very few, but those who have cows or goats up on the green alps."
"And you think this is one of the grandest and wildest valleys you know?"
"It is small," said the guide, "but it is the most solitary, and leads into the wildest parts. See: in a short time we shall reach the glacier, and then always ice, snow, and rock too steep for the snow to stand, and beyond that the eternal silence of the never-ending winter."
Two hours' climb more than walk, with the sun coming down with scorching power; but in spite of the labour, no weariness assailing the travellers, for the air seemed to give new life and strength at every breath they drew. But now, in place of the view being more grand, as they climbed higher the valley grew narrow, the scarped rocks on either side towered aloft and shut out the snowy peaks, and at last their path led them amongst a dense forest of pines, through whose summits the wind sighed and the roaring torrent's sound was diminished to a murmur.
This proved to be a harder climb than any they had yet undertaken, the slope being very steep, and the way encumbered by masses of rock which had fallen from above and become wedged in among the pine trunks.
"Tired, Saxe?" said Dale, after a time.
"I don't know, sir. That is, my legs are tired, but I'm not so upward. I want to go on."
"In half an hour we shall be through," said Melchior; "then there are no more trees—only a green matt, with a chalet and goats and cows."
"That means milk," said Saxe eagerly.
"Yes, and bread and cheese," said Melchior, smiling.
"Then I'm not tired. I'm sure of it now, sir," said Saxe merrily; and the next half-hour was passed in a steady tramp, the guide leading as surely as if he had passed all his days in that gloomy patch of forest, never hesitating for a moment, but winding in and out to avoid the innumerable blocks which must have lain there before the pines had sprung up and grown for perhaps a hundred years.
Then there was bright daylight ahead, and in a few more strides the last trees were passed, and they came out suddenly in an amphitheatre of bare rocks, almost elliptical, but coming together at the head, and bending away like a comma turned upside down.
At the moment they stepped on to the green stunted pasture, dotted with flowers, the roar of the torrent came up from a gash in the rocks far below, and to right and left, from at least three hundred feet up, the waters of no less than five streams glided softly over the rocks, and fell slowly in silvery foam, to form so many tributaries of the torrent far below.
The effect of those falls was wonderful, and for the first few minutes it seemed as if the water had just awakened at its various sources, and was in no hurry to join the mad, impetuous stream below, so slowly it dropped, turning into spray, which grew more and more misty as it descended, while every now and then a jet as of silver rockets shot over from the top, head and tail being exactly defined, but of course in water instead of sparks.
"Will this do, Saxe?" said Dale, smiling.
"Do! Oh, come on. I want to get close up to those falls."
"Aren't you tired?"
"Tired!" cried Saxe. "What fellow could feel tired in a place like this!"
FURTHER IDEAS OF MAGNITUDE.
The guide had already started off, and for the next half-hour he led them on and upward, gradually ascending a rocky eminence which stood like a vast tower in the middle of the amphitheatre.
Every now and then he stopped to hold out his ice-axe handle to help Saxe; but the latter disdained all aid, and contented himself with planting his feet in the same spots as the guide, till all at once the man stopped.
It was the top of the eminence; and as Saxe reached Melchior's side he paused there, breathless with exertion and wonder, gazing now along the curved part of the comma, which had been hidden for the last hour.
Right and left were the silvery veil-like cascades: down below them some five hundred feet the little river roared and boomed, and the junction of the silvery water of the falls with the grey milky, churned-up foam of the torrent was plainly seen in two cases. But the sight which enchained Saxe's attention was the head of the valley up which they had toiled, filled by what at the first glance seemed to be a huge cascade descending and flowing along the ravine before him, but which soon resolved itself into the first glacier—a wonderfully beautiful frozen river, rugged, wild and vast, but singularly free from the fallen stones and earth which usually rob these wonders of their beauty, and looking now in the bright sunshine dazzling in its purity of white, shaded by rift, crack and hollow, where the compressed snow was of the most delicate sapphire tint.
"Is that a glacier?" said Saxe, after gazing at it for a few minutes.
"Yes, lad, that's a glacier, and a better example than one generally sees, because it is so particularly clean. Glaciers are generally pretty old and dirty-looking in the lower parts."
The guide rested upon his ice-axe, with his eyes half-closed, apparently watching the effect the glacier had upon the visitors; Dale gazed at it contemplatively, as if it were the wrinkled face of an old friend; and Saxe stared wonderingly, for it was so different to anything he had pictured in his own mind.
"Well, what do you think of it?" said Dale, at last.
"Don't quite know, sir," said Saxe, sitting down, drawing up his knees to rest his chin, and throwing his arms about his legs. "It wants looking at. But I'm beginning to understand now. That's the upper part of the river which runs down the valley, only up here it is always frozen. Seems rum, though, for the sun's regularly blistering my neck."
"You have something of the idea, but you are not quite right, Saxe," replied Dale. "That is the upper part of the river, and yet it is not, because it is a distinct river. You speak of it as if the river up here had become frozen. Now, it is frozen because it has never been otherwise."
"Must have been water once, or else it couldn't have run down that narrow valley."
"It has never been anything but ice, Saxe," said Dale, smiling; "and yet it has run down the valley like that."
"Ice can't flow, because it is solid," said Saxe dogmatically.
"Ice can flow, because it is elastic as well as solid."
"Proof, boy. Haven't you seen it bend when thin, and people have been on it skating?"
"Oh! ah! I'd forgotten that."
"Well, this ice is sufficiently elastic to flow very slowly, forced down by its own weight and that of the hundreds of thousands of tons behind."
"Oh, I say, Mr Dale—gently!" cried Saxe.
"Well, then, millions of tons, boy. I am not exaggerating. You do not understand the vastness of these places. That glacier you are looking at is only one of the outlets of a huge reservoir of ice and snow, extending up there in the mountains for miles. It is forced down, as you see, bending into the irregularities of the valley where they are not too great; but when the depths are extensive the ice cracks right across."
"With a noise like a gun, sometimes," interpolated the guide, who was listening intently.
"And I know, like that," cried Saxe, pointing to a deep-looking jagged rift, extending right across the ice-torrent: "that makes a crevasse."
"Quite correct," said Dale.
"But stop a moment," cried Saxe: "this is all solid-looking blue ice. It's snow that falls on the tops of the mountains."
"Yes; snow at a certain height, while lower that snow becomes rain."
"Well, then, this valley we are looking at ought to be snow, not ice."
"Snow is ice in the form of light flocculent crystals, is it not? Why, at home, if you take up moist snow and press it hard in your hands, you can almost turn it into ice. If you placed it in a press, and applied much force, it would become perfectly clear ice. Well, there's pressure enough here to turn it into ice; and besides, the snow is always melting in the hot sun, and then freezing again at night."
"Yes, I see!" cried Saxe; "but it does seem queer. Why, we've got summer here, with flowers and bees and butterflies, and if we go down to that glacier, I suppose we can step on to winter."
"Yes, my lad; and if we like to climb a little higher up the ice, we can place ourselves in such severe winter that we should be frozen to death."
"Then we will not go," said Saxe, laughing. "You told me one day—No, you didn't, it was in a story I read, 'man is best as he is.' But I say, Mr Dale, how about the river? doesn't it come from the glacier?"
"Yes, of course. These vast glaciers are the sources of the great Swiss and Italian rivers. The Rhine and the Rhone both begin up in the mountains here, and the Aar and the Reuss start pretty close to them. When we get down here you will see how this stream runs from a little ice-cave."
"But what makes it so dirty?"
"My good fellow, we have come to climb, and my name is not Barlow. You must read and search out these things. You know how that stone or mass fell with a roar lower down?"
"Not likely to forget it, sir," replied Saxe, with a laugh.
"Well, the stones are always falling from the bare sides of the gorge; they drop on to the glacier, and in course of time are washed by the melting ice into the crevasses and down to the bare rock beneath the glacier. There they glide down, with its weight upon them, right over the rock, and the surface is worn off from the fallen stone and the bed rock in a thin paste, which is washed away by the glacier. Then, as it descends, it of course discolours the water."
"Shall we go down to the toe of the glacier!" said the guide.
"Yes; come along."
"Can we trust the young herr to descend?"
Dale leaned forward to gaze down the rugged slope, which was excessively steep, but broken up into rift and gully, offering plenty of foot and hand-hold.
"What do you think, Saxe?" he said. "Can you manage to get down there?"
"Get down there?" said the lad contemptuously; "why, I'd race you to the bottom."
"No doubt, and be down first," said Dale quietly; "but I should be ready to go on, and you would want carrying to the nearest chalet to wait for a surgeon."
"What, after getting down that bit of a place?"
"You stupid fellow," said Dale testily; "that bit of a place is a precipice of five hundred feet. How am I to impress upon you that everything here is far bigger than you think? Look here," he continued, pointing: "do you see that cow yonder, on that bit of green slope beside those overhanging rocks?"
"No; I can see a little dog by a heap of stones."
"That will do for an example," said Dale. "Here, Melchior, is not that a cow just across the stream there?"
"Wait a moment," cried Saxe eagerly. "I say it's a little dog. Who's right?"
"You are both wrong," said the guide, smiling. "There is a man here has a chalet behind the pines. He comes up the valley with his cattle for the summer, when the snow is gone."
"Is there snow here in winter, then?" said Saxe.
"The valley is nearly full in winter. No one can come up here."
"But that isn't a cow," cried Saxe, pointing.
"No," said the guide, smiling; "it is Simon Andregg's big bull."
"Well!" cried Saxe, shading his eyes and staring down at the animal, which looked small enough to be a dog.
"You don't believe him?" said Dale, laughing.
"Oh, I don't know," said Saxe; "I suppose I do. But I was thinking that he might have made a mistake. Shall I go first?"
"No, herr; I am the guide," said Melchior quietly; and he began the descent pretty rapidly, but stopped at the foot of each more difficult part to look up and wait for the others. Sometimes he drove the sharp end of his ice-axe into the earth or some crevice, and held it there to act as a step for the others to descend; and at other times he pressed himself against the rock and offered his shoulders as resting-places for their feet, constantly on the watch to lessen the difficulties and guard against dangers in a place where a slip of a few feet might have resulted in the unfortunate person who fell rolling lower with increasing impetus, and the slip developing into a terrible accident.
"It is farther than I thought," said Saxe, as they reached the bottom of the steep bluff from which they had viewed the glacier; and he stepped back a few yards to look up. "The places really are so much bigger than they look. Why, I say, Mr Dale, the glacier seems quite high up from here, and ever so much farther off."
"And it will look bigger still when we reach the cave where the river comes out."
"So!" said Melchior quietly; and he went on, now down the stony slope of the valley, to reach the river bed near its source, with the sides of the thal seeming to grow steeper and higher, and one of the waterfalls they were near infinitely more beautiful, for they had now reached the point necessary for seeing the lovely iris which spanned the cascade, turning its seething spray into a segment of an arch of the most vivid colours, at which the lad seemed disposed to gaze for an indefinite time.
"Vorwarts," said the guide quietly; and they obeyed, following his lead till they reached the spot where the clear waters of the fall glided into the dingy stream, and then followed the latter up and up for quite half an hour before Saxe stopped short, and took off his straw hat to wipe his steaming forehead, as he gazed up at the end of the glacier; he was now so low down that the surface was invisible, and facing him there was a curve rising up and up, looking like a blunted set of natural steps.
"Well?" said Dale, inquiringly.
"I can't make it out," said Saxe, rather breathlessly. "It seems as if that thing were playing games with us, and growing bigger and shrinking away farther at every step one takes."
"Yes," said Dale, "it is giving you a lesson that you will not easily forget."
"But it looked quite small when we were up there," cried Saxe, nodding toward the tower-like bluff they had climbed, again at the top of the glacier.
"Yes, and now it looks quite big, Saxe; and when you have been on it and have walked a few miles upon its surface here and there—"
"Yes, my boy, miles. Then you will begin to grasp how big all this is, and what vast deserts of ice and snow there are about us in the mountains. But come along; we have not much farther to go to reach the foot."
But it took them quite a quarter of an hour over rounded, scratched and polished masses of rock which were in places cut into grooves, and to all this Dale drew attention.
"Do you see what it means?" he said.
"No," said Saxe, "only that it's very bad walking, now it's so steep."
"But don't you see that—?"
"Yes, I do," cried Saxe, interrupting him; "you mean that this has been all rubbed smooth by the ice and stones grinding over it; but how could it?—the ice couldn't go up hill."
"No, it comes down."
"Then—was it once as far as here?"
"Ever so much farther when I was a boy," said the guide. "It has been shrinking for years. Mind, herr; it is very slippery here. Let me help you."
He hooked his ice-axe into a crevice, and held out his hand, by whose help Saxe mounted beside him, and here descending close to the water they stepped from stone to stone, with the ice towering more and more above their heads, till they were close up, and even below it, for they had entered a low, flat arch, which just admitted them standing upright, and after a few steps into what Saxe called a blue gloom, they stood gazing into the azure depths of the cavern, which grew darker till they were purple and then utterly black. Then they listened to the gurgle and babble of the tiny river, as it came rushing and dashing over the rock in many an eddy and swirl, while from far away up in the darkness there were mysterious whisperings and musical echoes that were strange to hear.
"Like to go in any farther, Saxe?" said Dale.
"Yes, much—very much," said the lad, in a low voice, "just because I don't want to."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I can't exactly explain it, because the place makes me feel nervous and a little shrinking, but I want to try and get over it."
"Better not stay any longer, herr," said the guide; "you are hot with walking, and the place is damp and cold."
"Yes, it would be wiser to go out in the sunshine again. I should like to explore this, though, with a lantern and candles."
"Whenever the herr likes," said the guide quietly. And they passed out again, the icy arch above them looking exquisitely beautiful with its blue tints, some of which were of the delicious brilliancy to be seen in some of our precious stones.
It was a wonderful change from the cool gloom of the cavern to the glaring sunshine outside, where the heat was reflected from the ice and glistening rocks; and now, striking up to the right, Melchior made for where the ice ended and the steep slope-up of the valley side began.
Here with a little difficulty they mounted—sometimes the rock growing too steep and the ice appearing the easier path, then the reverse, till at last they stood well up on the surface of the frozen river and began its toilsome ascent.
"Now you'll find the advantage of your big-nailed boots, Saxe," said his leader merrily. "Go cautiously, my lad; we mustn't spoil our explorations by getting sprained ankles."
The warning was necessary, for the ice surface was broken up into ruts, hollows, folds, and crags that required great caution, and proved to be laborious in the extreme to surmount.
"Is there much more of this rough stuff?" said Saxe, after half an hour's climbing.
The guide smiled.
"The ice gets bigger and wilder higher up," he replied. "There are smooth patches, but it is broken up into crags and seracs."
This was another surprise to Saxe, to whom the surface of the glacier, when seen from above on the bluff, had looked fairly smooth—just, in fact, one great winding mass of ice flowing down in a curve to the foot. He was not prepared for the chaos of worn, tumbled and crushed-up masses, among which the guide led the way. Some parts that were smoother were worn and channelled by the running water, which rushed in all directions, mostly off the roughly curved centre to the sides, where it made its way to the river beneath.
It was quite a wonderland to the boy fresh from town, entering the icy strongholds of nature; for, after ascending a little farther, their way was barred by jagged and pinnacled masses heaped together in the wildest confusion, many of the fragments being thirty, even forty feet high.
"Have we got to climb those?" said Saxe, in dismay.
The guide shook his head.
"No, herr: it would be madness to try. Some of them would give way at the least touch. Stand back a little, and I'll show you why it is dangerous to climb among the seracs."
He stepped aside, and, using his axe, deftly chipped off a piece of ice from a block—a fragment about as large as an ordinary paving-stone.
"Hold my axe, sir," he said; and on Saxe taking it, the man picked up the block he had chipped off, walked a little way from them, and, after looking about a little, signed to them to watch, as he hurled the lump from him, after raising it above his head. As he threw it, he ran back toward them, and the piece fell with a crash between two spires which projected from the icy barrier.
There was a crash, and then the effect was startling. Both the spires, whose bases must have been worn nearly through by the action of sun and water, came down with a roar, bringing other fragments with them, and leaving more looking as if they were tottering to their fall.
Then up rose what seemed to be a cloud of diamond dust, glittering in the bright sunshine, a faint echo or two came from high up the rocky face of the valley, and then all was silent once more.
"You see?" said Melchior. "Why, often a touch of a hand, or even a shout, will bring them tumbling down. Always keep away from the seracs."
He led them now at a safe distance across the glacier to the left, till a wide opening presented itself, through which they passed on to comparatively smooth ice; but even this was all piled together, wedged in blocks, which made the party seem, as Saxe said, like so many ants walking about in a barrel of loaf sugar.
Then there was a smoother stretch, all longitudinal furrows, up which they passed fairly well—that is to say, with only a few falls—till they went round a curve; and there they paused, breathless and wondering.
"Why, that was only a peep down below," cried Saxe. "Look, Mr Dale! look!"
He had cause to exclaim, for from where they stood they had an opening before them right up a side valley running off from the glacier at a sharp angle. This, too, was filled by a glacier, a tributary of the one they were upon, and with the sides of the minor valley covered with snow wherever the slope was sufficient to hold it. Beyond rose peak after peak, flashing pure and white—higher and higher; and even the hollows between them filled with soft-looking pillows and cushions of dazzling snow.
"Those are the mountains you told me about, then?" cried Saxe.
"Some of the outposts, lad. There are others far greater, miles behind those; and you are now having your first genuine look into wonderland."
"I never thought it was like this."
"No one can imagine how wonderful the mountains are," said the guide solemnly. "I looked up at them as a little child, and I have been up amongst them from a boy, while I am now thirty-five; and yet they are always changing and ever new. Sometimes they are all light and sunshine, though full of hidden dangers. Sometimes they are wild and black and angry, when the wind shrieks and the lightning flashes about their shattered heads, and the thunders roar. Yes, young herr, you never thought it was half so wonderful as this. Shall we go on?"
"I was thinking," said Dale. "I only meant to come a little way to-day, and let my companion have a glimpse of what is before him; so we will not go much farther, as it is so far back to the chalet."
"If the herr does not mind simple fare and a bed of clean hay, we could sleep at Andregg's to-night, and be ready for a start in the morning early."
"The very thing," said Dale. "How long will it take us to get from here to Andregg's?"
"An hour," said the guide; "so we have several good hours before us to go on up the glacier, or to cross over the valley ridge, and come back down the next."
"Can we go up the glacier for another mile," said Dale, "and then cross?"
"Then we will do that."
The ascent of the glacier-filled valley was continued, and they toiled on. A mile on level ground would have meant a sharp quarter of an hour's walk; here it meant a slow climb, slipping and floundering over ice, splashing through tiny rivulets that veined the more level parts, and the avoidance of transverse cracks extending for a few yards. Sometimes they had to make for the left, sometimes the right bank of the frozen river; and at last, as they were standing waiting while the guide made his observations as to the best way of avoiding some obstacle in their front, there was a sharp, clear crack.
"What's that?" said Saxe quickly.
"Stand back!" cried the guide. "No! quick—to me!"
They stepped forward to his side; and as, in obedience to a sign, they turned, there was a peculiarly harsh, rending noise, a singing as of escaping air, and to their astonishment, just where they had been standing the ice began to open in a curious, wavy, zigzag line, gradually extending to right and left. At first it was a faint crack, not much more than large enough to admit a knife-blade; but as they watched it slowly opened, till it was an inch—a foot—across, and then all sound ceased, and they could look down for a short distance before the sides came together, the whole forming a long wedge-shaped hollow.
"The opening of a crevasse," said the guide gravely. "It will go on growing bigger, till it will be dangerous."
"You are lucky, Saxe," said Dale. "You have had a fall of rock, seen an ice-cave and the birth of a big river, heard seracs fall, and now watched the opening of a crevasse. We must have that avalanche before we go back."
"When we get up on the ridge we shall see the Bluthenhorn," said Melchior; "the afternoon sun will be full on the high slopes, and we shall hear some of the ice-fall. Hark!"
He held up his hand, and they stood listening to a faintly booming sound, evidently at a great distance before them.
"Was that one?"
"Yes; but right over among the mountains, herr. It was a great fall, though, or we should not have heard it here."
He plodded steadily on, and Saxe noted that he kept his eyes down and seemed to make a business of every step, measuring exactly where he should plant it, and keeping hold, as it were, with his other foot till he was sure that his new step was safe. Not that this took long, but it appeared to be all carefully studied, and the boy learned that such caution must be the result of experience and mean safety in his arduous climbing.
The glacier wound in serpentine fashion along the valley, growing wilder and grander as they ascended. There were masses of piled-up ice, and crevasses into whose blue depths they peered as they listened to the hollow echoing sounds of running water. Some of these were stepped over in an ordinary stride, some had to be jumped; and, though the distance was short, Saxe felt a curious shrinking sensation as he leaped across a four or five feet rift, whose sides were clear blue ice, going right down to what would in all probability mean death to one who fell. Then on again, till it seemed to the lad that they must have journeyed that one mile upward several times over; and, at last, before them there was snow filling up all the irregularities, and offering them a soft smooth path.
It was not snow, though, such as he had seen in England, for it looked more like a thick layer of softened hailstones, which he could scoop up and let fall separately, or scatter at large to glisten in the sun, while upon trying it the particles crackled and crushed under their feet, but felt pretty firm.
"What are you stopping for?" said Dale.
"I don't quite like the look of the snow on beyond this first old part," said the guide. "You have no alpenstock or ice-axe either."
"Shall we give up going any farther to-day?" said Dale.
"No, herr: because I want to get round that piece of rock which runs out from the side. Beyond that there is a couloir running right up to the ridge, and it will be the easiest place for us to mount."
As he spoke he took the coil of rope from across his chest, and began to unfasten the end.
"Is that necessary?" asked Dale; while Saxe looked wonderingly on.
"Who knows, herr? It is the duty of a guide to take care his people run no risks. I want to be a good guide to mine."
"What are we going to do?" asked Saxe.
"Rope ourselves together in case the snow covers a crevasse."
"But if one goes through, he'll pull down the others," cried Saxe. "Is that wise?"
"He will not pull down the others," said Dale, "for they will pull him out."
Melchior said nothing, but slowly unfastened his rope as they stood there with their feet in the depth of a rigid winter and their heads in the height of summer. When he had it ready, hanging in loops on his left arm, he held out one end to his companions with a smile.
"Alpen rope. Good. Best," he said. "English make," and he pulled open one end, to show them a red strand running through it. "Now!"
He fastened one end by a peculiar knot round Saxe's waist, arranging it so that it should not slip and tighten, whatever stress was given. Then, bidding the lad walk away till told to stop, he deliberately counted over a certain number of rings.
"Stop! Keep the rope out of the snow."
Then, with Dale and Saxe holding the rope taut, the middle was attached by similar knots to Dale's waist, and Melchior walked on, and on reaching his end secured the rope to himself.
"Keep it nearly tight," he said, "holding the rope in your right hand. If any one goes wrong in the snow, the others are to stand firm and hang back, so as to hold him firmly. Keep to the steps of the man before you as much as you can. Now, then. Vorwarts!"
He started off now through the snow, with Dale and Saxe following.
"Been better if you had placed him in the middle, wouldn't it, Melchior?" said Dale.
"Yes, herr, I was thinking so. Shall I alter it?"
"No: let's go on as we are this time. Forward again!" And they went on over the dazzling untrodden surface.
ON THE ROPE.
"I say," cried Saxe, after they had gone on crunching through the snow, which was soft and melting fast.
"Yes: what is it?"
"Don't you feel as if we were horses haltered together for market?"
"I might answer, sir—Don't you feel like a donkey being led?"
"Because you ask such an absurd, childish question, and that at a serious time."
Saxe was silent.
"Mr Dale needn't be so gruff," he said to himself, as he tramped on, looking up at the rocky sides of the valley, which grew more and more snow-clad as they went on, and giving himself greater trouble by missing the footsteps of his leaders. Once he nearly stumbled and fell, giving a jerk to the rope; but he recovered himself directly, and tramped on in silence, finding the going so arduous that he began to wish for the time when they would leave the glacier and take to the rocks.
But he could not keep silence long.
"Shall we have to go back along the mountain?" he said. "Or will there be some other track?"
"I expect we shall cross the ridge into a similar valley to this, and go down another glacier; but—Ah! Hold tight!"
He threw himself backward, tightening the rope, and as soon as he could get over his surprise at the suddenness of the accident, Saxe followed his companion's example. For all at once Melchior disappeared, passing through the snow, and a hollow, echoing, rushing noise fell upon their ears.
"Haul away, gentlemen!" cried the guide's voice; and as they dragged at the rope, they saw his arms appear with the ice-axe, which was struck down into the snow, and directly after the man climbed out, rose from his hands and knees, and shook the snow off his clothes.
"We wanted the rope, you see," he said quietly. "I ought to have known by the snow that this part was dangerous. No harm done, gentlemen. Let's strike off for the side."
"But you went through," said Saxe excitedly. "Was it a crevasse?"
"Yes, of course," said the guide, smiling.
"Was it deep?"
"Deep? Oh yes! Would you like to look?"
Saxe nodded, and the guide drew back for him to pass, but took hold of the rope and held it tightly.
"Go on," he said encouragingly. "I have you fast."
"But how near can I go?" said Saxe, hesitating.
"Nearly to where I broke through the snow crust. You will see."
Saxe went on cautiously, still seeing nothing till he was close upon the hole, which was a fairly wide opening, a quantity of half-frozen snow having given way as the guide's weight rested upon it, and dropped into the black-looking rift, which was lightly bridged over on either side by the snow.
"Lean over if you like, and hang on by the rope," said Melchior, "if you want to look down."
Saxe could not say he did not want to look down, for there was a strange fascination about the place which seemed to draw him. But he resisted, and after a quick glance at the thick snow which arched over the crevasse, he drew back; and Melchior led on again, striking the shaft of his ice-axe handle down through the crust before him at every step, and divining, by long practice and the colour of the snow, the direction of the crevasse so well, that he only once diverged from the edge sufficiently for the handle to go right down.
"We can cross here," he said at last.
"Are you sure?" said Dale.
The guide smiled, and stamped heavily right across.
"We are beyond the end of the crevasse," he said; and once more they went on upward.
"These cracks make the glacier very dangerous," observed Dale, after a few minutes.
"Not with a rope and care," said Melchior, as he trudged on, shouting his words and not turning his head. "But what will you? See how much easier it is. It would take us hours longer to keep to the rocks. There is a crevasse here: walk lightly—just in my steps."
They followed him carefully, without realising when they were passing over the opening, the difference in the appearance of the snow being only plain to the guide; and then onward again till the place was opposite to them where they were to leave the ice river and climb to the rocks.
"One moment," said Dale: "let's take one look round before we leave this part. Look, Saxe! the view is magnificent."
"Yes; and you can see better from here," cried the boy enthusiastically, as he stepped forward a few yards.
"Ah! not that way!" cried Melchior.
The warning came too late, for Saxe dropped through suddenly, tightening the rope with a jerk which threw Dale forward upon his face, and drew him a little way on toward the crevasse, whose slight covering of snow had given way.
But Melchior threw himself back, and stopped farther progress, as Saxe's voice came up from below in a smothered way—
"Ahoy! Help! help!"
"Get to your feet," cried Melchior to Dale; "I'll keep the rope tight."
"Yes," cried Dale, scrambling up; "now, quick!—both together, to draw him out."
"Draw him out? No," said the guide quietly. "Now plant your feet firmly, and hold him till I come to your side."
Dale obeyed at once, and shouting to Saxe that help was coming, he stood fast, waiting for the guide.
Meanwhile, Saxe, who had felt the snow suddenly drop from beneath him, and had been brought up breathlessly with a sudden jerk, was swinging slowly to and fro, clinging with both hands to the rope, and trying vainly to get a rest for his feet on the smooth wall of ice, over which his toes glided whenever he could catch it; but this was not often, for the ice receded, and in consequence he hung so clear, that the line turned with him, and he was at times with his back to the side from which the rope was strained, gazing at the dimly-seen opposite wall, some six or seven feet away. Above was the over-arching snow, which looked fragile in the extreme.
Far below him as he fell he heard the snow and ice he had broken away go hissing and whispering down for what seemed long after he had dropped; and this gave him some idea of the terrible depth of the ice crack, and a cold chill, that was not caused by the icy coldness of the place, ran through him, as he wondered whether the rope, which now looked thin and worn, would hold. Then he thought that it might possibly cut against the sharp edge, and after a sharp glance upward, to see nothing but the blue sky, he could not keep from looking down into the black depths and listening to the faint musical gurgle of running water.
He shuddered as he slowly turned, and then strained his ears to try and make out what his companion and the guide were doing. But he could hear nothing for some minutes. Then there was a vibration of the rope, and a slight jerking sensation, and to his horror he found that he was being lowered down.
Saxe was as brave as most boys of his years, but this was too much for him. It struck him at first that he was being lowered; but the next moment it seemed to be so much without reason that he jumped to the conclusion that the rope was slowly unravelling and coming to pieces.
An absurd notion, but in the supreme moments of great danger people sometimes think wild things.
He was just in the agony of this imagination, when the small patch of light twenty feet above him was darkened, and he saw the head and shoulders of Melchior, as the man, trusting to the strain upon the rope maintained by Dale, leaned forward.
"Can you help yourself at all?" he said quietly.
"No, no!" cried Saxe hoarsely.
"Be cool, my lad," said Melchior. "I shall drive the head of my axe into the ice, and leave the handle so that you can grasp it when you are drawn up."
Saxe made no reply, but he heard a dull sound, and directly after the rope began to move, and he knew by the jerks that it was being hauled in hand-over-hand by the guide.
A minute later, and the lad's head was level with the snow, and he saw the handle of the ice-axe, which he grasped. But it was almost needless, for Melchior caught him by the portion of the rope which was round his chest, and by a quick exercise of his great strength raised him right out of the crevasse, to stand trembling there, as Dale now ran up and grasped his hand.
"Saxe, my boy! What an escape!"
"Oh no," said the guide quickly. "It was nothing. The rope is good and strong, and all we had to do was to draw him out. It would have been dangerous for one man—he would have died—but we are three, and we help each other; so it is nothing."
The two travellers exchanged glances, wondering at the man's coolness; but they were given no time to think, for Melchior quickly examined the knots of the rope which secured it about Saxe's chest, and strode on again, so that they were obliged to follow.
A few minutes later they had reached the rocky side of the glacier valley, and a stiff ascent was before them. Here they found more than ever the value of their guide, for his climbing powers seemed almost marvellous, while almost by instinct he selected the easiest route.
But the easiest was very hard, and every now and then he threw himself back against the rock in difficult places, planted his feet firmly wide apart, and steadily hauled upon the rope, making the ascent of the others much more facile than it would have been.
This was repeated again and again till they had reached the top of the ridge, which had seemed the summit from below on the ice; but here a fresh slope met their eyes, and Melchior made straight for a rift which ran up into the mountain, and, being full of snow, looked at a distance like a waterfall.
"We will go up this couloir," he said; "it will be the best, and it will give the young herr his first lesson in climbing snow."
"But we have been climbing snow," said Saxe, whose trepidation had now passed off, and who was feeling once more himself.
"Walking upon it," said the guide, smiling; "not climbing."
"Rather a steep bit, isn't it, Melchior?" said Dale, looking upward.
"Yes, it is steep; but we can do it, and if we slip it will only be a glissade down here again. The rocks are harder to climb, and a slip there would be bad; besides, the stones fall here sometimes rather thickly."
"But they'll be worse down that couloir," said Dale.
"As bad—not worse, herr; but I will go which way you like."
"Go the best way," said Dale quietly.
Melchior nodded, and strode on at once for the foot of the narrow rift, which looked like a gully or shoot, down which the snow fell from above.
"Use my steps," he said quietly; and, with the rope still attached, he began to ascend, kicking his feet into the soft snow as he went on, and sending it flying and rushing down, sparkling in the sunshine, while the others followed his zigzag track with care. There were times when the foothold gave way, but there was no element of danger in the ascent, which did not prove to be so steep as it had looked before it was attacked. But the ascent was long, and the couloir curved round as they climbed higher, displaying a fresh length of ascent invisible from below.
As they turned the corner Melchior paused for them to look about them, and upward toward where the gully ended in a large field of snow, above and beyond which was steeply scarped mountain, rising higher and higher toward a distant snowy peak.
"But we are not going right up that mountain, are we?" cried Saxe, panting and breathless.
"Not to-day," replied the guide. "No: up to the snow yonder, and along its edge for a little way, and then we descend on the other side, where it will be all downward to Andregg's chalet. Hah! Down close! Quick!"
He set the example, flinging himself upon his face and extending his hands above his head, as a whizzing sound was heard; then a dull thud or two and directly after there was a crash on the rocky side of the couloir a few feet above their heads, followed by a shower of slaty fragments which fell upon them, while a great fragment, which had become detached far above, glanced off, struck the other side of the gully, and then went downward, ploughing up the snow.
"Take care!" again cried the guide. "No," he said directly after, "it is only a few bits."
The few consisted of what might easily have been a cartload of snow, which passed them with a rush, fortunately on the opposite side of the gully.
"I say, Mr Dale," said Saxe, rather nervously, "if that piece of slate had hit either of us—"
"Hah!" ejaculated Dale, drawing in his breath with a hiss, "if it had hit us—"
They neither of them finished their sentence; and just then Melchior started once more, lessening the difficulty of the ascent by zigzagging the way.
Snow was dislodged, and went gliding down the gully, and for a moment a great patch began to slide, taking Dale with it, but a few rapid leaps carried him beyond it; and tightening the rope as soon as he had reached a firm place, Saxe was able to pick his way after the snow had gone by him with a rush, but only to stop a little lower down.
Another climb of about a quarter of an hour's duration brought them to the edge of the field of snow, which Melchior examined pretty carefully, and ended by rejecting in favour of a rugged ridge of rocks, which they had hardly reached when there was a quick roar like thunder, and the guide cried sharply—
He pointed upward toward the snow peaks, which seemed to be a couple of miles away; and as they followed the direction of his pointing hand, toward quite a chaos of rock and ice to their left, and about half-way to the summit, they looked in vain, till Dale cried—
"There it is!"
"Yes: what?" cried Saxe eagerly. "Oh, I see: that little waterfall!"
For far away there was the semblance of a cascade, pouring over the edge of a black rock, and falling what seemed to be a hundred feet into a hollow, glittering brilliantly the while in the sun.
They watched it for about five minutes; and then, to Saxe's surprise, the fall ceased, but the deep rushing noise, as of water, was still heard, and suddenly the torrent seemed to gush out below, to the left, and go on again fiercer than ever, but once more to disappear and reappear again and again, till it made one bold leap into a hollow, which apparently communicated with the glacier they had left.
"Hah!" ejaculated Saxe, "it was very beautiful, but—Why, that must have been snow! Was that an avalanche?"
"Yes; didn't you understand? That is one of the ice-falls that are always coming down from above."
"I didn't take it," said Saxe. "Well, it was very pretty, but not much of it. I should like to see a big one."
Dale looked at Melchior, and smiled.
"He does not grasp the size of things yet," he said. "Why, Saxe, my lad, you heard the clap like thunder when the fall first took place?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then don't you grasp that what looked like a cascade tumbling down was hundreds of tons of hard ice and snow in large fragments? Hark! there goes another."
There was a deeper-toned roar now, and they stood looking up once more, with Saxe troubled by a feeling of awe, as the noise came rumbling and echoing to where they stood.
"That must have been a huge mass down," said Dale at last, after they had looked up in vain, expecting some visible token of the avalanche.
"Yes, herr: away over that ridge. The snow falls at this time of the day. We shall not see any of that one. Shall we go on!"
"No, no!" cried Saxe excitedly, "I want to see another one come down. But did you mean there were hundreds of tons in that first one, that looked like water?"
"Oh yes—perhaps much more," said Dale. "That fall was a couple of miles away."
"Here, let's go on, sir," said Saxe, who seemed to have changed his mind very suddenly. "It all puzzles me. I dare say I'm very stupid, but I can't understand it. Perhaps I shall be better after a time."
"It is more than any one can understand, Saxe," said Dale quietly; "and yet, while it is grand beyond imagination, all the scheme of these mountains, with their ice and snow, is gloriously simple. Yes," he added, with a nod to Melchior, "go on," and an arduous climb followed along the ridge of rocks, while the sun was reflected with a painful glare from the snowfield on their left, a gloriously soft curve of perhaps great depth kept from gliding down into the gorge below by the ridge of rocks along which they climbed.
The way was safe enough, save here and there, when Melchior led them along a ledge from which the slope down was so steep as to be almost a precipice. But here he always paused and drew in the rope till those in his charge were close up to him; and on one of these occasions he patted Saxe on the shoulder, for there had been a narrow piece of about fifty feet in length that looked worse at a glance back than in the passing.
"That was good," he said. "Some grown men who call themselves climbers would have hung back from coming."
"That?" said Saxe. "Yes, I suppose it is dangerous, but it didn't seem so then. I didn't think about it, as you and Mr Dale walked so quietly across."
"It's the thinking about it is the danger," said Dale quietly. "Imagination makes men cowards. But I'm glad you've got such a steady head, Saxe."
"But I haven't, sir, for I was horribly frightened when I hung at the end of that rope down in the crevasse."
"You will not be again," said Melchior coolly, for they were now on a slope where the walking was comparatively easy, and they could keep together. "The first time I slipped into one I, too, was terribly frightened. Now I never think of anything but the rope cutting into my chest and hurting me, and of how soon I can get hold somewhere to ease the strain."
"What!" cried Saxe, staring at the man's cool, matter-of-fact way of treating such an accident, "do you mean to say I shall ever get to think nothing of such a thing as that?"
"Oh yes," said Melchior quietly.
"Oh, well, I don't think so," said Saxe. "Oh no. I shall get not to mind walking along precipices, I dare say, but those crevasses—ugh!"
"The young herr will make a fine mountaineer, I am sure," said Melchior. "I ought to know. Along here," he added; and, after a few minutes, he stopped at what was quite a jagged rift in the mountain side.
"There is an awkward bit here, herr," he said, "but it will cut off half an hour's hard walking."
"Down there?" said Saxe, after a glance. "Oh, I say!"
"It is an ugly bit, certainly," said Dale, looking at the guide.
"With a little care it is nothing," said Melchior. "The herr will go down first. He has only to mind where he plants his feet. When he reaches that ledge he will stop till we join him."
As Melchior spoke he unfastened the rope from Dale's breast and placed the end from his own breast there instead; after which he set himself in a good position by the edge.
"Hadn't we better get the youngster down first?"
"No, herr, you are heavy, and if you slip he can help me to hold you. We can do it easily. Then you will untie yourself, and I can let him down."
"And what then?" cried Saxe merrily, to conceal a feeling of uneasiness at the awkward descent before him. "Are we to come up again and let you down?"
"The young herr speaks like a gentleman Irlandais who was with me last year. He made John Bulls, his friend said."
"Irish bulls, Melchior," said Dale, smiling.
"Ah, yes, the herr is right, they were Irish bulls; but I do not quite know. Are you ready?"
"Yes," said Dale, preparing to descend the precipitous piece.
"Better keep your face to the rock here, herr. Go on. Take hold here, young friend. That's it. The rope just touching, and the hands ready to tighten at the slightest slip. Confidence, herr. But I need not speak. You can climb."
Dale reached the ledge below without a slip, unfastened the end of the rope, and Melchior began to attach it to Saxe.
"But, I say," cried the latter, "how can you get down?"
"There?" said the guide, with a little laugh. "Oh, that is not hard climbing: I can easily get down there."
"I wish I could without thinking it was terrible," said Saxe to himself, as he prepared in turn to descend, for in spite of the confidence given by the rope about his chest, he found himself fancying that if the knot came undone by the jerk he should give it if he slipped from one of those awkward pieces of stone, he would go on falling and bounding from rock to rock till he lay bruised and cut, perhaps killed, at the bottom of the mountain.
"It's no good to stop thinking about it," he muttered; and lowering himself down, he began to descend steadily, with the feeling of dread passing off directly he had started; for the excitement of the work, and the energy that he had to bring to bear in lowering himself from ledge to ledge, kept him too busy to think of anything but the task in hand; so that, in what seemed to be an incredibly short space of time, he was standing beside Dale.
Then came a warning cry from Melchior, who threw down his end of the rope, and directly after began to descend with an ease that robbed his task of all aspect of danger. Every movement was so quietly and easily made, there was such an elasticity of muscle and absence of strain, that before the man was half down, both Dale and Saxe were wondering how they could have thought so much of the task, and on Melchior joining them, and after descending a little farther, roping them for other steep bits, they went on easily and well.
And now for about a couple of hours Melchior took them on rapidly down and down and in and out among bluffs and mountain spurs which he seemed to know by heart, though to those with him the place grew more perplexing at every turn. There was a gloomy look, too, now, in the depths of the various gorges, which told of the coming of evening, though the various peaks were blazing with orange and gold, and a refulgent hue overspread the western sky.
"Is it much farther?" said Saxe at last. "I am getting so hungry, I can hardly get one leg before the other."
"Farther!" said Melchior, smiling. "Do you not see? Up there to the right is the foot of the glacier; there is the hill from which you saw the top, and yonder is the patch of forest. Andregg's chalet is just below."
"I am glad!" cried Saxe. "I thought I was hungry, but it's tired I am. I shall be too weary to eat."
"Oh no!" said Melchior. "The young herr will eat, and then he will sleep as we sleep here in these mountains, and wake in the morning ready for another day. The herr still wants to hunt for crystals?" he added, glancing at Dale.
"Yes; if you can take me to them," said the latter eagerly.
"I will try, herr; but they have to be sought in the highest solitudes, on the edge of the precipices, where it is too steep for the snow to stay, and they say that there are spirits and evil demons guarding the caverns where they lie."
"And do you believe them?" said Saxe sturdily.
"The young herr shall see," replied the guide. "Ah! there is Andregg. The cows have just been brought home, and here come the goats. I heard the cry in the mountains. We shall have bread and milk and cheese, if we have nothing else. Do I believe that about the demons who guard the crystal caves?" he continued thoughtfully. "Well, the young herr shall see. Hoi! hola, Andregg! I bring you friends!" he shouted to a grey-haired man standing in the evening twilight, which was declining fast, just outside the plain brown pine-wood chalet, with two women and a boy leisurely milking cows and goats.
"The herrs are welcome," said the man gravely. "It has been fine among the mountains to-day. I was fearing we should have a storm."
Milk, bread, butter and cheese in the rough pine verandah, seated on a homely bench, with the soft pleasant smell of cows from beneath, and the melodious chiming tinkle of many sweet-toned bells—not the wretched tin or iron jangling affairs secured to sheep or kine in England, but tuneful, well-made bells, carefully strapped to the necks of the cattle, and evidently appreciated by the wearers, several of which stood about, gently swaying their heads, blinking their great soft eyes, ruminating, and waiting their turn with the brawny milkmaid, who rose from her crouching position from time to time, taking her one-legged stool with her, fastened on and projecting like a peculiar tail.
The light was dying out fast on the peaks around, and they ceased to flash and glow, to become pale and grey, and then ghastly, cold and strange, as the little party sat enjoying the simple meal and the calm and rest of the peaceful scene. Everything around was so still that there was hardly a murmur in the pines; only the hushed roar of the restless river, but subdued now, for its waters were shrinking fast from the failure of the supply; for the many thousand trickling rivulets of melting snow, born of the hot sunshine of the day, were now being frozen up hard.
The weary feeling that stole over Saxe was very pleasant as he eat there, with his back against the rough pine boards of the chalet, watching the shadows darkening in the valley, and the falls grow less and less distinct, while a conversation, which did not trouble him, went on close by his elbow.
"I think I have pretty well explained what I want, Melchior," Dale was saying. "I have seen a few specimens of the crystals found up in the mountains, and I am convinced that far finer pieces are to be obtained in the higher parts that have not yet been explored."
The guide was silent for a few minutes as he sat now smoking his pipe.
"The herr is right," he said at last. "I have often seen places where, such treasures may be found. But you are a stranger—I am a Swiss. Is it right that I should help you?"
"When I tell you that I am moved by no ideas of greed, but solely as a discoverer, and that, as I have before said, your country would be the richer for my find, you ought to be satisfied."
"I should be, herr, only that I do not quite like the secrecy of your movements. It is not like anything I have done before, and it troubles me to think that I ought not to tell anybody the object of our excursions."
"Tell any curious people that we are making ascents because I am studying the mountains. It will be the truth; for, understand me, I am not going alone for this search. I want to find out more concerning the forming of the glaciers, and the gathering of storms on the mountains. There are endless discoveries to be made, and ascents to be attempted. You will show me mountains that have not yet been climbed."
"I will show the herr all he wishes, and keep his counsel loyally," said Melchior. "No one shall know anything about our search. Look, herr: the Alpen glow!"
A slight rustling sound beneath the verandah had just taken Saxe's attention, and he was wondering whether any one was in the low stone cowhouse over which the chalet was built—from the economical ideas of the people, who make one roof do for both places, and give to their cattle an especially warm winter house—when the guide's words roused him from his drowsy state, and he started up to gaze at the rather rare phenomenon before him.
A short time before the various mountain peaks had stood up, dimly-seen, shadowy grey and strange, the more distant dying out in the gathering gloom. Now it was as if a sudden return of the golden sunset had thrown them up again, glowing with light and colour, but with a softness and delicacy that was beautiful in the extreme.
"All that's bright must fade," said Dale, with a sigh. "I wonder what our English friends would say to that, Saxe!"
"What I do,—that it's lovely. Is it like this every night?"
"No," replied Melchior, refilling his pipe; "it is only at times. Some say it means storms in the mountains; some that it is to be fine weather."
"And what do you say, Melchior?" asked Dale.
"I say nothing, herr. What can a man who knows the mountains say, but that this is a place of change? Down here in the valley it has been a soft bright summer day, whilst up yonder in the mountains storm and snow have raged, and the icy winds have frozen men to death. Another day I have left the wind howling and the rain beating and the great black clouds hanging low; and in an hour or two I have climbed up to sunshine, warmth and peace."
"But you mountaineers know a great deal about the weather and its changes."
"A little, herr," said the guide, smiling—"not a great deal. It is beyond us. We know by the clouds and mists high above the mountains when it is safe to go and when to stay; for if we see long-drawn and rugged clouds hanging about the points and trailing down the cols and over each icy grat, we know there is a tempest raging and we do not go. There is not much wisdom in that. It is very simple, and—Look! the young herr is fast asleep. Poor boy!—it has been a tiring day. Shall we go to rest?"
"Yes," said Dale, laying his hand on Saxe's shoulder. "Come, boy, rouse up and let's go to bed."
"Eh? What? Where? Sliding down and—Did you speak, Mr Dale?" said Saxe, after starting up and babbling excitedly for a moment or two, just fresh from his dreams.
"Wake up! I'm going to bed."
"Wake up, of course," said Saxe tetchily. "Mustn't a—?"
He stopped short, colouring a little; and at that moment he turned sharply, for there was a loud sneeze from below, and directly after a youngish man, with a lowering look and some bits of hay sticking in his hair, came out from the cowhouse and slouched by the front, glancing up with half-shut eyes towards the occupants of the verandah, on his way to a low stone-built shingle-roofed place, from which sundry bleatings told that it was the refuge of the herd of goats.
Saxe was too sleepy to think then, and their host being summoned, he showed them through the chalet into a long low room with a sloping roof and boarded floor, in two corners of which lay a quantity of clean hay and twigs of some dry heathery-looking plant.
"Gute nacht," he said briefly, and went out, leaving the door open.
"Do we sleep here?" said Saxe, yawning. "No beds no chests of drawers, no washstands, no carpets."
"No, boy: nothing but clean hay and a roof over our heads," replied Dale. "Shall you mind?"
"Mind?" said Saxe, plumping himself down in the hay. "Well, it seems so queer. I can't undress and lie in this stuff: see how it would tickle. It is pretty soft, though, and—Oh! murder!"
"What's the matter?" cried Dale excitedly: "some insect?"
"No, it's a jolly old stumpy thistle, like the top of a young pineapple. It did prick.—Yes, it is pretty soft, and it smells nice, and heigh ho hum! how tired I am!"
"You'll take the other corner, Melchior," said Dale; "I'll lie here. There is no occasion to fasten the door, I suppose?"
"Fasten the door!" said the guide, with a quiet laugh. "Oh no. The only intruder likely to come is the wind, and he might open it and bang it, but he will not be abroad to-night. Look!"
"Look! what at?"
The guide pointed to the corner where Saxe had lain down, making a pillow of his arm.
"Comfortable, Saxe boy?"
There was no reply. The hay made a pleasant, sweetly scented couch. Saxe was fast asleep.
A TRY FOR GOLD.
Strange places bring strange dreams, and often some hours of complete oblivion. Saxe began to dream with all his might. Body and Brain had been having the thorough rest which comes to those who have been walking far in the glorious mountain air; but toward morning Brain woke up and began to act on its own account, while Body lay asleep; and when Brain does this without the balance given by Body, its workings are rather wild.
In this case it began to repeat the adventures of the day before, but in a curiously bizarre manner; and in consequence Saxe found himself being disappointed in the heights of the mountains, which were exceedingly small—mere anthills covered with snow, up which he began to climb so as to stand on their tops; but as he climbed they began to grow, so that there was always a piece more to get up, and so he went on, finding that there was no getting right to the top. Then avalanches began to fall rumbling and roaring down, and covering people at the bottom—hundreds of them, so it seemed to him; and he could hear them moaning under the snow, which by some curious chance of circumstances was just below him. But the odd thing was that they did not seem to mind it much, only moaning piteously and impatiently, as if they were in a hurry for a thaw to come and set them free. Then one of them began to ring the bell for dinner; and another did the same; and Saxe felt that he ought to be doing something to take them food to eat—coarse bread, butter, cheese like Gruyere, full of holes, and a jug of milk, but he did not do it, and the people went on moaning and ringing the bells.
Then he was high up, watching the waterfalls with the silvery rockets slowly descending, and trailing after them their sparkling spray, which kept lighting up with glorious rainbow colours.
Then he was stepping from stone to stone in the ice-cave below the glacier, listening to the gurgling and whishing of the water as it came rushing down over the grey, dark rock from out the narrow arching tunnel which shut up behind him.
How he got out of that place he did not know; but soon after his eyes were aching with the glare of the snow around him. A huge eagle, a hundred times bigger than the one he had seen, was soaring round and round, and coming lower and lower, till it was so close to him that he could feel the wind of its wings wafted pleasantly over his face. The bird's back was soft and cushiony, and it seemed to be inviting him to take his place upon it for a ride up in the air; and he was thinking of doing so, and gliding off over the silver-topped mountains to look out for caves where they could chip out crystals, and perhaps discover valuable metals; but just as he was about to throw a leg over the feathery saddle and take his seat, there was a fearful yell, that sounded like an accident in a trombone manufactory, where all the instruments had been blown up by an explosion of steam. He was hurled back upon the snow, and held down by some monstrous creature, which planted its feet upon his chest; and the people buried in the snow began to moan more loudly and ring the bells.
Then Saxe opened his eyes, and in his half-awake condition he felt the wafting of the great bird's wings, heard the moaning of the people buried beneath the avalanche, and listened to them ringing the bells in an impatient way.
"What nonsense, to dream such stuff!" he said impatiently. "Why, it's the cows lowing in the place underneath, waiting to be milked, and shaking their bells."
But, all the same, he felt a thrill of horror run through him, and tried to pierce the gloom by which he was surrounded, for certainly something was holding him down with its feet upon his chest, and stooping by him so that he could feel its breath.
The sensation to him was horrible, for it raised its head now, making a strange noise; and he could faintly see by a pencil of light a hideous-looking head, with tall curved horns and a long beard, and though he could not see them, he seemed to feel that a pair of glowing eyes were fixed upon his not a yard away.
There was no time to think or reason in such a position. He could see the head, and feel the pressure of the feet; and he knew that he was not dreaming now. Frightened he was naturally, but he acted at once as a lad of manly character might be expected to act: he struck out with his doubled fist, giving the object a heavy blow just beneath the horns.
The effect was instantaneous. The creature gave a bound, there was a pattering sound on the floor, and something rushed out through the open door, uttering a dismal b-a-a-ah!
"Why, it was a jolly old goat!" said Saxe, half aloud. "I wish I wasn't such a coward."
The next moment he was lying back laughing silently, fully grasping his position now, and listening to a rustling movement away to his left.
"That you, Melchior?" he said.
"Ah, herr: awake? Good morning."
"Not time to get up, is it?"
"Oh yes; it is getting late. Why, it will soon be full day!"
"Oh, will it?" muttered Saxe rather grumpily, for the bed he had despised overnight now seemed temptingly pleasant for another hour or two's snooze. "What nonsense!" he thought. "Soon be day! I hope we are not always going to get up at such ridiculous times. Well, if I'm to get up, he isn't going to be snoozing there."
He leaned over and stretched out his hand; but that was not sufficient, for their bed was wide, and he had to creep a yard or two before he could grasp his companion's shoulder.
"It's to-morrow morning, Mr Dale," he said.
"Eh? yes! All right. Where's Melchior?" cried Dale, springing up.
"Here, herr," said the guide from the door. "A beautiful morning, and I think a fine day."
"That's right," said Dale, shaking the hay from his clothes.
"Shall I ask where the dressing and bath-rooms are?" said Saxe, grinning.
"No," said Dale quietly; "I'll show you."
He led the way out of the chalet, where they met the furtive-looking man they had seen overnight. He gave them another sidelong look, said Guten morgen surlily, and then, as it seemed to Saxe, began to put on his tail—that is to say, he strapped on his one-legged milking-stool, and went to meet one of the cows.
"This way to the bath-room, Saxe," said Dale; and he led the way to the foot of the nearest fall, whose icy water came showering down softly as if it were from a cloud. Here there was a pool of the greatest limpidity, broad, deep, and ground out of the solid rock by the constant dropping that wears a stone.
There were no remains of sleep about Saxe's eyes after his ablutions, and they walked back towards the chalet, meeting Melchior.
"There is some breakfast ready, herr," he said; "and I should like to know whether it would be wise to get your things up here and stay for a few days."
"An excellent proposal; but how are we to get them?"
"Oh, there are men who would fetch them; or Andregg would send Pierre with his mule."
"Who is Pierre?—that man we saw milking?"
"Yes, herr. I don't like him, but he is honest, and will do that very well. Shall I send? After you have done here, I can get them carried farther over the mountains, or, if you liked, we could hire Andregg's mule for use at once."
"But the mountains? Can he climb?"
"Almost anywhere. I think he could even beat us. He is a wonderful beast."
The proposal was agreed to, and after they had partaken of their homely breakfast, Andregg was questioned about the mule.
Oh yes, he was quite willing to lend it, for as many days or weeks as the herr liked.
"Then I'll have it to carry our little tent, rugs and provisions. I promise you I will feed the animal well."
"The herr need not trouble himself," said Andregg; "Gros will feed himself."
"Well, then, I will not work him too hard."
"I am not afraid, herr," said the sturdy grey-haired old Swiss, smiling; "he always lies down when he is tired."
"Then I will not beat him."
"No, herr," said Andregg; "he will not let you."
"Here, I want to see that mule!" cried Saxe.
"Oh yes, the young herr shall see him," said the old Swiss; and he went to the door and uttered a peculiar jodel, which was answered directly by a horrible bray which Saxe recognised as the yell he had heard before he was awake.
"Nein—nein—nein—nein!" shouted the old Swiss, and the donkey's bray died off into a sobbing moan. As this was ended, the old man jodelled again, apparently without result; but soon after there was a snort, and a peculiar-looking animal came trotting down from the mountain, whisking its long tail from side to side and pointing its long ears forward. But as it came close up, it suddenly stopped, and spun round as if upon a pivot.
"Here, come round and let's look at your head," cried Saxe.
"No; he will not turn till he knows you well," cried the old man; "he's very bashful, is Gros. You must make friends with him by degrees, and then he is quite a brother to any one in the mountains."
"But how am I to make friends with him?" cried Saxe.
"Get a piece of bread for the young herr, Melchior Staffeln," said the old man. "When it comes," he continued, "you may tempt Gros to come to you; but he is very particular, and may not like you, because you are foreigners."