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Our Library => Henry Seton Merriman - Dross (1899) => Topic started by: Admin on March 19, 2023, 08:10:30 am

Title: 26: Above the Snow Line
Post by: Admin on March 19, 2023, 08:10:30 am
". . . . le temps l'achève."

Before setting out we had a light breakfast at the Hôtel des Alpes, where we were informed by several other persons, and on two further occasions by the waiter that the "patron" was deaf. Indeed, the village had no other news.

The postmaster had ordered a carriage, which, however, could only take us two miles on our road, for this ceased at that distance, and only a bad bridle path led onward to Italy.

Alphonse was by this time beginning to feel the effects of his long ride and sleepless night; for he had not closed his eyes, while I had snatched a priceless hour of sleep. Moreover, the hardships of the campaign had rendered him less equal to a sudden strain than a man in good condition. He kept up bravely, however, despite a great thirst which at this time assailed him, and sent him to the brook at the side of the path much too often for his good.

We entered at once upon a splendid piece of mountain scenery, and soon left behind us the vivid green of the upper valley. To our left a sheer crag rose from the valley in one unbroken slope, and in front the mountains seemed to close and bar all progress. We had five thousand feet to climb from the frontier stone, and I anticipated having to accomplish the larger part of it alone. They had warned us that we should find eight feet of snow at the summit of the pass.

Miste had assuredly been hard pressed to attempt such a passage alone, and bearing, as he undoubtedly did, a large sum of money. The man had a fine nerve, at all events; for on the other side he would plunge into the wildest part of northern Italy, where the human scum that ever hovers on frontiers had many a fastness. Villainy always requires more nerve than virtue.

I meant, however, to catch Mr. Charles Miste on the French side of the Chapel of the Madonna di Finestra.

We trod our first snow at an altitude of about five thousand feet. The spring, it will be remembered, was a cold one in 1870, and the snow lay late that year. At last, on turning a corner, we saw about two miles ahead of us a black form on the white ground, and I confess my heart stood still.

Alphonse, who had no breath for words, grasped my arm, and we stood for a moment watching Miste, for it could be no other. The sun was shining on the great snow-field, and the man's figure was the one dark spot there. He was evidently tired, and made but slow progress.

"I am not going to lose him now," I said to Alphonse. "If you cannot keep up with me, say so, and I will go on alone."

"You go at your own pace," answered the Frenchman, with admirable spirit, "and I will keep up till I drop. I mean to be in at the death if I can."

Miste never turned, but continued his painful, upward way. He was a light stepper, as his shallow footprints betokened; but I saw with grim delight that each step of mine overlapped his measure by a couple of inches.

There is nothing so still as the atmosphere of a summit, and in this dead silence we hurried on. Giraud's laboured breathing alone broke it. I glanced at him, and saw that his face was of a pasty white and gleaming with perspiration. Poor Alphonse had not much more in him. I slackened pace a little.

"We are gaining on him, every step tells," said I encouragingly, but it was clear that my companion would soon drop.

We went on in silence for nearly half an hour and gained visibly on Miste, who never looked back or paused. At the end of the time we were within a mile of him, and only spoke in whispers, for at such an altitude sound travels far. Every moment that Miste was ignorant of the pursuit was invaluable to us. I could see clearly now that it was he and no other; the man's back was familiar to me, and his lithe springy gait.

"Have you a revolver?" whispered Giraud as we stumbled on.

"Not I."

"Then take mine, I cannot---last---much longer."

Supposing that Miste should be in better training than myself! Supposing that when he turned and saw us he should be able to increase his pace materially, he would yet escape me!

I stretched out my hand and took the revolver, which was of a familiar pattern. I made up my mind to shoot Miste sooner than lose him, for the chase had been a long one, and my blood was hot.

We were gaining on him still, and the heat of the day made him slacken his pace. The sun beat down on us from a cloudless sky. My lips and throat were like dry leather. Alphonse had long been cooling his with snow. We did not care to speak now. All our hearts were in our eyes; at any moment Miste might turn.

Suddenly Alphonse lagged behind. I glanced at him, and he pointed upward, so I went on. It was difficult enough to breathe at such an altitude, and my heart kept making matters worse by leaping to my throat and choking me. I felt giddy at times, and shivered, though the perspiration ran off my face like rain.

I was within three hundred yards of Miste now, and Alphonse was somewhere behind me, I could not pause to note how far. We were near the summit, and the world seemed to contain but three men. My breath was short, and there was clockwork going in my head.

Then at length Miste turned. He took all in at a glance, probably recognising us. At all events he had no doubt of our business there; for he hurried on, and I could see his hand at his jacket pocket. Still I gained on him.

"Beer against absinthe," I remember thinking.

There was an unbroken snow-field ahead of us, the sheer side of a mountain with the footpath cut across it---a strip of blue shadow.

After ten minutes of rapid climbing, Miste turned at length, and waited for me. He had a cool head; for he carefully buttoned his coat and stood sideways, presenting as small a target as possible.

He raised his revolver and covered me.

"He won't fire yet," thought I, forty yards below him, and I advanced quickly.

He stood covering me for a few seconds, and then lowered his arm and waited for me. In such an atmosphere we could have spoken in ordinary tones, but we had nothing to say. Monsieur Miste and I understood each other without need of words.

"Fire, you fool!" cried Giraud behind me---nearer than I had suspected.

I was within twenty yards of Miste now; the man had a narrow, white face, and was clean shaven. I saw it only for a moment, for the revolver came up again.

"He is probably a bad shot, and will miss first time," I thought quickly, as I crept upward. The slope was steep at this point.

I saw the muzzle of the revolver quiver—a sign, no doubt, that he was bearing on the trigger. Then there was a flash, and the report, as it seemed, of a cannon. I staggered back, and dropped on one knee. Miste had hit me in the shoulder. I felt the warm blood running down within my clothes, and had a queer sensation of having fallen from a great height.

"I'll kill him!---I'll kill him!" I found myself repeating in a silly way, as I got to my feet again.

No sooner was I up than Miste fired again, and I heard the bullet whistle past my ear. At this I whipped out Giraud's revolver, for I thought the next shot would kill me. The scoundrel let me have it a third time, and tore a piece out of my cheek; the pain of it was damnable. I now stood still and took a careful sight, remembering, in a dull way, to fire low. I aimed at his knees. Monsieur Charles Miste leapt two feet up into the air, fell face forwards, and came sliding down towards me, clutching at the snow with both hands.

I was trying to stop my two wounds, and began to be conscious of a swimming in the head. In a moment Giraud was by my side, and clapped a handful of snow on my cheek. He had been through the winter's campaign, and this was no new work for him. He tore open my shirt and pressed snow on the wound in my shoulder, from which the blood was pumping slowly. I was in a horrid plight, but in my heart knew all the while that Miste had failed to kill me.

Giraud poured some brandy into my mouth, and I suppose that I was nearly losing consciousness, for I felt the spirit running into me like new life.

In a minute or two we began to think of Miste, who was lying on his face a few yards away.

"All right now?" asked Alphonse, cheerily.

"All right," I answered, rising and going towards the black form of my enemy.

We turned him over. The eyes were open---large, liquid eyes, of a peculiarly gentle expression. I had seen them before, in Radley's Hotel at Southampton, under a gay little Parisian hat. I was down on my knees in the snow in a moment---all cold with the thought that I had killed a woman.

But Charles Miste was a man---and a dead one at that. My relief was so great that I could have shouted aloud. Miste had therefore been within my grasp at Southampton, only eluding me by a clever trick, carried out with consummate art. The dead face seemed to wear a smile as I looked at it.

Alphonse opened the man's shirt, and we looked at the small blue hole through which my bullet had found his heart. Death must have been very quick. I closed the gentle eyes, for they seemed to look at me from a woman's face.

"And now for his pockets!" I said, hardening my heart.

We turned them out one by one. His purse contained but little, and in an inner pocket some Italian silver, for use across the frontier. He had thought of everything, this careful scoundrel. In a side pocket, pinned to the lining of it, I found a flat packet enveloped in newspaper. This we unfolded hastily. It contained a number of papers. I opened one of them---a draft for five thousand pounds, drawn by John Turner on Messrs. Sweed & Carter of New York! I counted the drafts aloud and had a long task, for they numbered seventy-nine.

"That," I said, handing them to Giraud, "is the half of your fortune. If we have luck we shall find the remainder in Sander's hands at Genoa."

And Alphonse Giraud must needs embrace me, hurting my shoulder most infernally, and pouring out a rapid torrent of apology and self-recrimination.

"I listened when it was hinted to me that you were not honest," he cried, "that you were not seeking the money at all, or that you had already recovered it! I have watched you as if you were a thief---Mon Dieu, what a scoundrel I have been."

"At all events you have the money now."

"Yes." He paused, fingering the papers, while he thoughtfully looked down into the valley. "Yes, Dick---and it cannot buy me what I want."

Thus we are, and always shall be, when we possess at length that for which we have long yearned.

We made a further search in Miste's pockets, and found nothing. The man's clothing was of the finest, and his linen most clean and delicate. I had a queer feeling of regret that he should be dead---having wanted his life these many months and now possessing it. Ah---those accomplished desires! They stalk through life behind us---an army of silent ghosts. For months afterwards I missed him---incomprehensible though this may appear. A good foe is a tonic to the heart. Some of us are virtuous for the sake of our friends---others pay the tribute to their foes.

There was still plenty of work for us to do, though neither was in a state to execute it. My left arm had stiffened right down to the fingers, which kept closing up despite my endeavours to keep life and movement in them. The hurt in my cheek had fortunately ceased bleeding, and Giraud bound it up with Miste's handkerchief. I recall the scent of the fine cambric to this day, and when I smell a like odour see a dead man lying on a snow-field.

We composed Miste in a decent attitude, with his slim hands crossed on his breast, and then turned our steps downward towards St. Martin Lantosque. To one who had never known a day's illness, the fatigue consequent upon the loss of so much blood was particularly irksome, and I cursed my luck many a time as we stumbled over the snow. Giraud would not let me finish the brandy in his flask, but kept some for an emergency.

The peasants were at work in the fields when we at length reached the valley, and took no heed of us. We told no one of Miste lying alone on the snow far above, but went straight to the gendarmerie, where we found the chief---a sensible man, himself an old soldier---who heard our story to an end without interruption, and promised to give us all assistance. He sent at once for the doctor, and held my shoulder tenderly while the ball was taken from it. This he kept, together with Miste's revolver, and indeed acted throughout with the greatest shrewdness and good sense. As an old campaigner he strongly urged me to remain quietly at St. Martin for a few days until the fever which inevitably follows a bullet wound should have abated; but, on learning that it was my intention to proceed at once to Genoa, placed no difficulty in my way.

Knowing that I should find Sander at Genoa, where I could be tended, Giraud decided to remain at St. Martin Lantosque until Miste had been buried and all formalities observed.

So I set forth alone about midday---in a private carriage placed at my disposal by some local good Samaritan---feeling like a worm and no man.