Running Water

Chapter VII

The Aiguille d’Argentière

A.E.W. Mason

CHAYNE SMOKED another pipe alone and then walking to the end of the little terrace looked down on to the glistening field of ice below. Along that side of the chalet no light was burning. Was she listening? Was she asleep? The pity which had been kindled within him grew as he thought upon her. To-morrow she would be going back to a life she clearly hated. On the whole he came to the conclusion that the world might have been better organized. He lit his candle and went to bed, and it seemed that not five minutes had passed before one of his guides knocked upon his door. When he came into the living-room Sylvia Thesiger was already breakfasting.

“Did you sleep?” he asked.

“I was too excited,” she answered. “But I am not tired”; and certainly there was no trace of fatigue in her appearance.

They started at half past one and went up behind the hut.

The stars shimmered overhead in a dark and cloudless sky. The night was still; as yet there was no sign of dawn. The great rock cliffs of the Chardonnet across the glacier and the towering ice-slopes of the Aiguille Verte beneath which they passed were all hidden in darkness. They might have been walking on some desolate plain of stones flat from horizon to horizon. They walked in single file, Jean leading with a lighted lantern in his hand, so that Sylvia, who followed next, might pick her way amongst the boulders. Thus they marched for two hours along the left bank of the glacier and then descended on to ice. They went forward partly on moraine, partly on ice at the foot of the crags of the Aiguille Verte. And gradually the darkness thinned. Dim masses of black rock began to loom high overhead, and to all seeming very far away. The sky paled, the dim masses of rock drew near about the climbers, and over the steep walls, the light flowed into the white basin of the glacier as though from every quarter of the sky.

Sylvia stopped and Chayne came up with her.

“Well?” he asked; and as he saw her face his thoughts were suddenly swept back to the morning when the beauty of the ice-world was for the first time vouchsafed to him. He seemed to recapture the fine emotion of that moment.

Sylvia stood gazing with parted lips up that wide and level glacier to its rock-embattled head. The majestic silence of the place astounded her. There was no whisper of wind, no rustling of trees, no sound of any bird. As yet too there was no crack of ice, no roar of falling stones. And as the silence surprised her ears, so the simplicity of color smote upon her eyes. There were no gradations. White ice filled the basin and reached high into the recesses of the mountains, hanging in rugged glaciers upon their flanks, and streaking the gullies with smooth narrow ribands. And about the ice, and above it, circling it in, black walls of rock towered high, astonishingly steep and broken at the top into pinnacles of an exquisite beauty.

“I shall be very glad to have seen this,” said Sylvia, as she stored the picture in her mind, “more glad than I am even now. It will be a good memory to fall back upon when things are troublesome.”

“Must things be troublesome?” he asked.

“Don’t let me spoil my one day,” she said, with a smile.

She moved on, and Chayne, falling back, spoke for a little with his guides. A little further on Jean stopped.

“That is our mountain, mademoiselle,” he said, pointing eastward across the glacier.

Sylvia turned in that direction.

Straight in front of her a bay of ice ran back, sloping ever upward, and around the bay there rose a steep wall of cliffs which in the center sharpened precipitously to an apex. The apex was not a point but a rounded level ridge of snow which curved over on the top of the cliffs like a billow of foam. A tiny black tower of rock stood alone on the northern end of the snow-ridge.

“That, mademoiselle, is the Aiguille d’Argentière. We cross the glacier here.”

Jean put the rope about her waist, fixing it with the fisherman’s bend, and tied one end about his own, using the overhand knot, while his brother tied on behind. They then turned at right angles to their former march and crossed the glacier, keeping the twenty feet of rope which separated each person extended. Once Jean looked back and uttered an exclamation of surprise. For he saw Chayne and his guides following across the glacier behind, and Chayne’s road to the Col Dolent at the head of the glacier lay straight ahead upon their former line of advance. However he said nothing.

They crossed the bergschrund with less difficulty than they had anticipated, and ascending a ridge of debris, by the side of the lateral glacier which descended from the cliffs of the Aiguille d’Argentière, they advanced into the bay under the southern wall of the Aiguille du Chardonnet. On the top of this moraine Jean halted, and the party breakfasted, and while they breakfasted Chayne told Sylvia something of that mountain’s history. “It is not the most difficult of peaks,” said he, “but it has associations, which some of the new rock-climbs have not. The pioneers came here.” Right behind them there was a gap, the pass between their mountain and the Aiguille du Chardonnet. “From that pass Moore and Whymper first tried to reach the top by following the crest of the cliffs, but they found it impracticable. Whymper tried again, but this time up the face of the cliffs further on to the south and just to the left of the summit. He failed, came back again and conquered. We follow his road.”

And while they looked up the dead white of that rounded summit ridge changed to a warm rosy color and all about that basin the topmost peaks took fire.

“It is the sun,” said he.

Sylvia looked across the valley. The great ice-triangle of the Aiguille Verte flashed and sparkled. The slopes of the Les Droites and Mont Dolent were hung with jewels; even the black precipices of the Tour Noir grew warm and friendly. But at the head of the glacier a sheer unbroken wall of rock swept round in the segment of a circle, and this remained still dead black and the glacier at its foot dead white. At one point in the knife-like edge of this wall there was a depression, and from the depression a riband of ice ran, as it seemed from where they sat, perpendicularly down to the Glacier d’Argentière.

“That is the Col Dolent,” said Chayne. “Very little sunlight ever creeps down there.”

Sylvia shivered as she looked. She had never seen anything so somber, so sinister, as that precipitous curtain of rock and its riband of ice. It looked like a white band painted on a black wall.

“It looks very dangerous,” she said, slowly.

“It needs care,” said Chayne.

“Especially this year when there is so little snow,” added Sylvia.

“Yes. Twelve hundred feet of ice at an angle of fifty degrees.”

“And the bergschrund’s just beneath.”

“Yes, you must not slip on the Col Dolent,” said he, quietly.

Sylvia was silent a little while. Then she said with a slight hesitation:

“And you cross that pass to-day?”

There was still more hesitation in Chayne’s voice as he answered:

“Well, no! You see, this is your first mountain. And you have only two guides.”

Sylvia looked at him seriously.

“How many should I have taken for the Aiguille d’Argentière? Twelve?”

Chayne smiled feebly.

“Well, no,” and his confusion increased. “Two, as a rule, are enough—unless—”

“Unless the amateur is very clumsy,” she added. “Thank you, Captain Chayne.”

“I didn’t mean that,” he cried. He had no idea whether she was angry or not. She was just looking quietly and steadily into his face and waiting for his explanation.

“Well, the truth is,” he blurted out, “I wanted to go up the Aiguille d’Argentière with you,” and he saw a smile dimple her cheeks.

“I am honored,” she said, and the tone of her voice showed besides that she was very glad.

“Oh, but it wasn’t only for the sake of your company,” he said, and stopped. “I don’t seem to be very polite, do I?” he said, lamentably.

“Not very,” she replied.

“What I mean is this,” he explained. “Ever since we started this morning, I have been recapturing my own sensations on my first ascent. Watching you, your enjoyment, your eagerness to live fully every moment of this day, I almost feel as if I too had come fresh to the mountains, as if the Argentière were my first peak.”

He saw the blood mount into her cheeks.

“Was that the reason why you questioned me as to what I thought and felt?” she asked.


“I thought you were testing me,” she said, slowly. “I thought you were trying whether I was—worthy”; and once again humility had framed her words and modulated their utterance. She recognized without rancor, but in distress, that people had the right to look on her as without the pale.

The guides packed up the Rücksacks, and they started once more up the moraine. In a little while they descended on to the lateral glacier which descending from the recesses of the Aiguille d’Argentière in front of them flowed into the great basin behind. They roped together now in one party and ascended the glacier diagonally, rounding a great buttress which descends from the rock ledge and bisects the ice, and drawing close to the steep cliffs. In a little while they crossed the bergschrund from the glacier on to the wall of mountain, and traversing by easy rocks at the foot of the cliffs came at last to a big steep gully filled with hard ice which led up to the ridge just below the final peak.

“This is our way” said Jean. “We ascend by the rocks at the side.”

They breakfasted again and began to ascend the rocks to the left of the great gully, Sylvia following second behind her leading guide. The rocks were not difficult, but they were very steep and at times loose. Moreover, Jean climbed fast and Sylvia had much ado to keep pace with him. But she would not call on him to slacken his pace, and she was most anxious not to come up on the rope but to climb with her own hands and feet. This they ascended for the better part of an hour and Jean halted on a convenient ledge. Sylvia had time to look down. She had climbed with her face to the wall of rock, her eyes searching quickly for her holds, fixing her feet securely, gripping firmly with her hands, avoiding the loose boulders. Moreover, the rope had worried her. When she had left it at its length between herself and the guide in front of her, it would hang about her feet, threatening to trip her, or catch as though in active malice in any crack which happened to be handy. If she shortened it and held it in her hands, there would come a sudden tug from above as the leader raised himself from one ledge to another which almost overset her.

Now, however, flushed with her exertion and glad to draw her breath at her ease, she looked down and was astonished. So far below her already seemed the glacier she had left, so steep the rocks up which she had climbed.

“You are not tired?” said Chayne.

Sylvia laughed. Tired, when a dream was growing real, when she was actually on the mountain face! She turned her face again to the rock-wall and in a little more than an hour after leaving the foot of the gully she stepped out on to a patch of snow on the shoulder of the mountain. She stood in sunlight, and all the country to the east was suddenly unrolled before her eyes. A moment before and her face was to the rock, now at her feet the steep snow-slopes dropped to the Glacier of Saleinaz. The crags of the Aiguille Dorées, and some green uplands gave color to the glittering world of ice, and far away towered the white peaks of the Grand Combin and the Weisshorn in a blue cloudless sky, and to the left over the summit of the Grande Fourche she saw the huge embattlements of the Oberland. She stood absorbed while the rest of the party ascended to her side. She hardly knew indeed that they were there until Chayne standing by her asked:

“You are not disappointed?”

She made no reply. She had no words wherewith to express the emotion which troubled her to the depths.

They rested for a while on this level patch of snow. To their right the ridge ran sharply up to the summit. But not by that ridge was the summit to be reached. They turned over on to the eastern face of the mountain and traversed in a straight line across the great snow-slope which sweeps down in one white unbroken curtain toward the Glacier of Saleinaz. Their order had been changed. First Jean advanced. Chayne followed and after him came Sylvia.

The leading guide kicked a step or two in the snow. Then he used the adz of his ax. A few steps still, and he halted.

“Ice,” he said, and from that spot to the mountain top he used the pick.

The slope was at a steep angle, the ice very hard, and each step had to be cut with care, especially on the traverse where the whole party moved across the mountain upon the same level, and there was no friendly hand above to give a pull upon the rope. The slope ran steeply down beneath them, then curved over a brow and steepened yet more.

“Are the steps near enough together?” Chayne asked.

“Yes,” she replied, though she had to stretch in her stride.

And upon that Jean dug his pick in the slope at his side and turned round.

“Lean well way from the slope, mademoiselle, not toward it. There is less chance then of slipping from the steps,” he said anxiously, and there came a look of surprise upon his face. For he saw that already of her own thought she was standing straight in her steps, thrusting herself out from the slope by pressing the pick of her ax against it at the level of her waist. And more than once thereafter Jean turned about and watched her with a growing perplexity. Chayne looked to see whether her face showed any sign of fear. On the contrary she was looking down that great sweep of ice with an actual exultation. And it was not ignorance which allowed her to exult. The evident anxiety of Chayne’s words, and the silence which since had fallen upon one and all were alone enough to assure her that here was serious work. But she had been reading deeply of the Alps, and in all the histories of mountain exploits which she had read, of climbs up vertical cracks in sheer walls of rocks, balancings upon ridges sharp as a knife edge, crawlings over smooth slabs with nowhere to rest the feet or hands, it was the ice-slope which had most kindled her imagination. The steep, smooth, long ice-slope, white upon the surface, grayish-green or even black where the ax had cut the step, the place where no slip must be made. She had lain awake at nights listening to the roar of the streets beneath her window and picturing it, now sleeping in the sunlight, now enwreathed in mists which opened and showed still higher heights and still lower depths, now whipped angrily with winds which tore off the surface icicles and snow, and sent them swirling like smoke about the shoulders of the peak. She had dreamed herself on to it, half shrinking, half eager, and now she was actually upon one and she felt no fear. She could not but exult.

The sunlight was hot upon this face of the mountain; yet her feet grew cold, as she stood patiently in her steps, advancing slowly as the man before her moved. Once as she stood, she moved her foot and scratched the sole of her boot on the ice to level a roughness in the step, and at once she saw Chayne and the guide in front drive the picks of their axes hard into the slope at their side and stand tense as if expecting a jerk upon the rope. Afterward they both looked round at her, and seeing she was safe turned back again to their work, the guide cutting the steps, Chayne polishing them behind him.

In a little while the guide turned his face to the slope and cut upward instead of across. The slope was so steep that instead of cutting zigzags across its face, he chopped pigeon holes straight up. They moved from one to the other as on a ladder, and their knees touched the ice as they stood upright in the steps. For a couple of hours the axes never ceased, and then the leader made two or three extra steps at the side of the staircase. On to one of them he moved out, Chayne went up and joined him.

“Come, mademoiselle,” he said, and he drew in the rope as Sylvia advanced. She climbed up level with them on the ladder and waited, not knowing why they stood aside.

“Go on, mademoiselle,” said the guide. She took another step or two upon snow and uttered a cry. She had looked suddenly over the top of the mountain on to the Aiguille Verte and the great pile of Mont Blanc, even as Revailloud had told her that she would. The guide had stood aside that she might be the first to step out upon the summit of the mountain. She stood upon the narrow ridge of snow, at her feet the rock-cliffs plastered with bulging masses of ice fell sheer to the glacier.

Her first glance was downward to the Col Dolent. Even at this hour when the basin of the valley was filled with sunshine that one corner at the head of the Glacier d’Argentière was still dead white, dead black. She shivered once more as she looked at it—so grim and so menacing the rock-wall seemed, so hard and steep the riband of ice. Then Chayne joined her on the ridge. They sat down and ate their meal and lay for an hour sunning themselves in the clear air.

“You could have had no better day,” said Chayne.

Only a few white scarfs of cloud flitted here and there across the sky and their shadows chased each other across the glittering slopes of ice and snow. The triangle of the Aiguille Verte was over against her, the beautiful ridges of Les Courtes and Les Droites to her right and beyond them the massive domes and buttresses of the great white mountain. Sylvia lay upon the eastern slope of the Argentière looking over the brow, not wanting to speak, and certainly not listening to any word that was uttered. Her soul was at peace. The long-continued tension of mind and muscle, the excitement of that last ice-slope, both were over and had brought their reward. She looked out upon a still and peaceful world, wonderfully bright, wonderfully beautiful, and wonderfully colored. Here a spire would pierce the sunlight with slabs of red rock interspersed amongst its gray; there ice-cliffs sparkled as though strewn with jewels, bulged out in great green knobs, showed now a grim gray, now a transparent blue. At times a distant rumble like thunder far away told that the ice-fields were hurling their avalanches down. Once or twice she heard a great roar near at hand, and Chayne pointing across the valleys would show her what seemed to be a handful of small stones whizzing down the rocks and ice-gullies of the Aiguille Verte. But on the whole this new world was silent, communing with the heavens. She was in the hushed company of the mountains. Days there would be when these sunlit ridges would be mere blurs of driving storm, when the wind would shriek about the gullies, and dark mists swirl around the peaks. But on this morning there was no anger on the heights.

“Yes—you could have had no better day for your first mountain, mademoiselle,” said Jean, as he stood beside her. “But this is not your first mountain.”

She turned to him.

“Yes, it is.”

Her guide bowed to her.

“Then, mademoiselle, you have great gifts. For you stood upon that ice-slope and moved along and up it, as only people of experience stand and move. I noticed you. On the rocks, too, you had the instinct for the hand-grip and the foothold and with which foot to take the step. And that instinct, mademoiselle, comes as a rule only with practice.” He paused and looked at her perplexity.

“Moreover, mademoiselle, you remind me of some one,” he added. “I cannot remember who it is, or why you remind me of him. But you remind me of some one very much.” He picked up the Rücksack which he had taken from his shoulders.

It was half past eleven. Sylvia took a last look over the wide prospect of jagged ridge, ice pinnacles and rock spires. She looked down once more upon the slim snow peak of Mont Dolent and the grim wall of rocks at the Col.

“I shall never forget this,” she said, with shining eyes. “Never.”

The fascination of the mountains was upon her. Something new had come into her life that morning which would never fail her to the very end, which would color all her days, however dull, which would give her memories in which to find solace, longings wherewith to plan the future. This she felt and some of this her friend understood.

“Yes,” he said. “You understand the difference it makes to one’s whole life. Each year passes so quickly looking back and looking forward.”

“Yes, I understand,” she said.

“You will come back?”

But this time she did not answer at once. She stood looking thoughtfully out over the bridge of the Argentière. It seemed to Chayne that she was coming slowly to some great decision which would somehow affect all her life. Then she said—and it seemed to him that she had made her decision:

“I do not know. Perhaps I never shall come back.”

They turned away and went carefully down the slope. Again her leading guide, who on the return journey went last, was perplexed by that instinct for the mountain side which had surprised him. The technique came to her so naturally. She turned her back to the slope, and thus descended, she knew just the right level at which to drive in the pick of her ax that she might lower herself to the next hole in their ice-ladder. Finally as they came down the rocks by the great couloir to the glacier, he cried out:

“Ah! Now, mademoiselle, I know who it is you remind me of. I have been watching you. I know now.”

She looked up.

“Who is it?”

“An English gentleman I once climbed with for a whole season many years ago. A great climber, mademoiselle! Captain Chayne will know his name. Gabriel Strood.”

“Gabriel Strood!” she cried, and then she laughed. “I too know his name. You are flattering me, Jean.”

But Jean would not admit it.

“I am not, mademoiselle,” he insisted. “I do not say you have his skill—how should you? But there are certain movements, certain neat ways of putting the hands and feet. Yes, mademoiselle, you remind me of him.”

Sylvia thought no more of his words at the moment. They reached the lateral glacier, descended it and crossed the Glacier d’Argentière. They found their stone-encumbered pathway of the morning and at three o’clock stood once more upon the platform in front of the Pavillon de Lognan. Then she rested for a while, saying very little.

“You are tired?” he said.

“No,” she replied. “But this day has made a great difference to me.”

Her guides approached her and she said no more upon the point. But Chayne had no doubt that she was referring to that decision which she had taken on the summit of the peak. She stood up to go.

“You stay here to-night?” she said.


“You cross the Col Dolent to-morrow?”


She looked at him quickly and then away.

“You will be careful? In the shadow there?”


She was silent for a moment or two, looking up the glacier toward the Aiguille d’Argentière.

“I thank you very much for coming with me,” and again the humility in her voice, as of one outside the door, touched and hurt him. “I am very grateful,” and here a smile lightened her grave face, “and I am rather proud!”

“You came up to Lognan at a good time for me,” he answered, as they shook hands. “I shall cross the Col Dolent with a better heart to-morrow.”

They shook hands, and he asked:

“Shall I see no more of you?”

“That is as you will,” she replied, simply.

“I should like to. In Paris, perhaps, or wherever you are likely to be. I am on leave now for some months.”

She thought for a second or two. Then she said:

“If you will give me your address, I will write to you. I think I shall be in England.”

“I live in Sussex, on the South Downs.”

She took his card, and as she turned away she pointed to the Aiguille d’Argentière.

“I shall dream of that to-night.”

“Surely not,” he replied, laughing down to her over the wooden balustrade. “You will dream of running water.”

She glanced up at him in surprise that he should have remembered this strange quality of hers. Then she turned away and went down to the pine woods and the village of Les Tines.

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter VIII - Sylvia Parts From Her Mother

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