His conversation with Garratt Skinner, the subject which Garratt Skinner had chosen, and the knowledge with which he had spoken, had seemed to Chayne rather curious. A man might sit by his fireside and follow with interest, nay almost with the passion of the mountaineer, the history of Alpine exploration and adventure. That had happened before now. And very likely Chayne would have troubled himself no more about Garratt Skinner’s introduction of the theme but for one or two circumstances which the more he reflected upon them became the more significant. For instance: Garratt Skinner had spoken and had asked questions about the new ascents made, the new passes crossed within the last twenty years, just as a man would ask who had obtained his knowledge out of books. But of the earlier ascents he had spoken differently, though the difference was subtle and hard to define. He seemed to be upon more familiar ground. He left in Chayne’s mind a definite suspicion that he was speaking no longer out of books, but from an intimate personal knowledge, the knowledge of actual experience. The suspicion had grown up gradually, but it had strengthened almost into a conviction.
It was to the old climbs that Garratt Skinner’s conversation perpetually recurred—the Aiguille Verte, the Grand and the Petit Dru and the traverse between them, the Col Dolent, the Grandes Jorasses and the Brenva route—yes, above all, the Brenva route up Mont Blanc. Moreover, how in the world should he know that those slabs of black granite on the top of the Grépon were veined with red—splashed with red as he described them? Unless he had ascended them, or the Aiguille des Charmoz opposite—how should he know? The philosophy of his guide Michel Revailloud flashed across Chayne’s mind. “One needs some one with whom to exchange one’s memories.”
Had Garratt Skinner felt that need and felt it with so much compulsion that he must satisfy it in spite of himself? Yet why should he practise concealment at all? There certainly had been concealment. Chayne remembered how more than once Garratt Skinner had checked himself before at last he had yielded. It was in spite of himself that he had spoken. And then suddenly as the train drew up at Vauxhall Station for the tickets to be collected, Chayne started up in his seat. On the rocks of the Argentière, beside the great gully, as they descended to the glacier, Sylvia’s guide had spoken words which came flying back into Chayne’s thoughts. She had climbed that day, though it was her first mountain, as if knowledge of the craft had been born in her. How to stand upon an ice-slope, how to hold her ax—she had known. On the rocks, too! Which foot to advance, with which hand to grasp the hold—she had known. Suppose that knowledge had been born in her! Why, then those words of her guide began to acquire significance. She had reminded him of some one—some one whose name he could not remember—but some one with whom years ago he had climbed. And then upon the rocks, some chance movement of Sylvia’s, some way in which she moved from ledge to ledge, had revealed to him the name—Gabriel Strood.
Was it possible, Chayne asked? If so, what dark thing was there in the record of Strood’s life that he must change his name, disappear from the world, and avoid the summer nights, the days of sunshine and storm on the high rock-ledges and the ice-slope?
Chayne was minded to find an answer to that question. Sylvia was in trouble; that house under the downs was no place for her. He himself was afraid of what was being planned there. It might help him if he knew something more of Garratt Skinner than he knew at present. And it seemed to him that there was just a chance of acquiring that knowledge.
He dined at his club, and at ten o’clock walked up St. James’ Street. The street was empty. It was a hot starlit night of the first week in August, and there came upon him a swift homesickness for the world above the snow-line. How many of his friends were sleeping that night in mountain huts high up on the shoulders of the mountains or in bivouacs open to the stars with a rock-cliff at their backs and a fire of pine wood blazing at their feet. Most likely amongst those friends was the one he sought to-night.
“Still there’s a chance that I may find him,” he pleaded, and crossing Piccadilly passed into Dover Street. Half way along the street of milliners, he stopped before a house where a famous scholar had his lodging.
“Is Mr. Kenyon in London?” he asked, and the man-servant replied to his great relief:
“Yes, sir, but he is not yet at home.”
“I will wait for him,” said Chayne.
He was shown into the study and left there with a lighted lamp. The room was lined with books from floor to ceiling. Chayne mounted a ladder and took down from a high corner some volumes bound simply in brown cloth. They were volumes of the “Alpine Journal.” He had chosen those which dated back from twenty years to a quarter of a century. He drew a chair up beside the lamp and began eagerly to turn over the pages. Often he stopped, for the name of which he was in search often leaped to his eyes from the pages. Chayne read of the exploits in the Alps of Gabriel Strood. More than one new expedition was described, many variations of old ascents, many climbs already familiar. It was clear that the man was of the true brotherhood. A new climb was very well, but the old were as good to Gabriel Strood, and the climb which he had once made he had the longing to repeat with new companions. None of the descriptions were written by Strood himself but all by companions whom he had led, and most of them bore testimony to an unusual endurance, an unusual courage, as though Strood triumphed perpetually over a difficulty which his companions did not share and of which only vague hints were given. At last Chayne came to that very narrative which Sylvia had been reading on her way to Chamonix—and there the truth was bluntly told for the first time.
Chayne started up in that dim and quiet room, thrilled. He had the proof now, under his finger—the indisputable proof. Gabriel Strood suffered from an affection of the muscles in his right thigh, and yet managed to out-distance all his rivals. Hine’s words drummed in Chayne’s ears:
“Nevertheless he left us all behind.”
Garratt Skinner: Gabriel Strood. Surely, surely! He replaced the volumes and took others down. In the first which he opened—it was the autumn number of nineteen years ago—there was again mention of the man; and the climb described was the ascent of Mont Blanc from the Brenva Glacier. Chayne leaned back in his chair fairly startled by this confirmation. It was to the Brenva route that Garratt Skinner had continually harked back. The Aiguille Verte, the Grandes Jorasses, the Charmoz, the Blaitière—yes, he had talked of them all, but ever he had come back, with an eager voice and a fire in his eyes, to the ice-arête of the Brenva route. Chayne searched on through the pages. But there was nowhere in any volume on which he laid his hands any further record of his exploits. Others who followed in his steps mentioned his name, but of the man himself there was no word more. No one had climbed with him, no one had caught a glimpse of him above the snow-line. For five or six seasons he had flashed through the Alps. Arolla, Zermatt, the Montanvert, the Concordia hut—all had known him for five or six seasons, and then just under twenty years ago he had come no more.
Chayne put back the volumes in their places on the shelf, and sat down again in the arm-chair before the empty grate. It was a strange and a haunting story which he was gradually piecing together in his thoughts. Men like Gabriel Strood always come back to the Alps. They sleep too restlessly at nights, they needs must come. And yet this man had stayed away. There must have been some great impediment. He fell into another train of thought. Sylvia was eighteen, nearly nineteen. Had Gabriel Strood married just after that last season when he climbed from the Brenva Glacier to the Calotte. The story was still not unraveled, and while he perplexed his fancies over the unraveling, the door opened, and a tall, thin man with a pointed beard stood upon the threshold. He was a man of fifty years; his shoulders were just learning how to stoop; and his face, fine and delicate, yet lacking nothing of strength, wore an aspect of melancholy, as though he lived much alone—until he smiled. And in the smile there was much companionship and love. He smiled now as he stretched out his long, finely-molded hand.
“I am very glad to see you, Chayne,” he said, in a voice remarkable for its gentleness, “although in another way I am sorry. I am sorry because, of course, I know why you are in England and not among the Alps.”
Chayne had risen from his chair, but Kenyon laid a hand upon his shoulder and forced him down again with a friendly pressure. “I read of Lattery’s death. I am grieved about it—for you as much as for Lattery. I know just what that kind of loss means. It means very much,” said he, letting his deep-set eyes rest with sympathy upon the face of the younger man. Kenyon put a whisky and soda by Chayne’s elbow, and setting the tobacco jar on a little table between them, sat down and lighted his pipe.
“You came back at once?” he asked.
“I crossed the Col Dolent and went down into Italy,” replied Chayne.
“Yes, yes,” said Kenyon, nodding his head. “But you will go back next year, or the year after.”
“Perhaps,” said Chayne; and for a little while they smoked their pipes in silence. Then Chayne came to the object of his visit.
“Kenyon,” he asked, “have you any photographs of the people who went climbing twenty to twenty-five years ago? I thought perhaps you might have some groups taken in Switzerland in those days. If you have, I should like to see them.”
“Yes, I think I have,” said Kenyon. He went to his writing-desk and opening a drawer took out a number of photographs. He brought them back, and moving the green-shaded lamp so that the light fell clear and strong upon the little table, laid them down.
Chayne bent over them with a beating heart. Was his suspicion to be confirmed or disproved?
One by one he took the photographs, closely examined them, and laid them aside while Kenyon stood upright on the other side of the table. He had turned over a dozen before he stopped. He held in his hand the picture of a Swiss hotel, with an open space before the door. In the open space men were gathered. They were talking in groups; some of them leaned upon ice-axes, some carried Rücksacks upon their backs, as though upon the point of starting for the hills. As he held the photograph a little nearer to the lamp, and bent his head a little lower, Kenyon made a slight uneasy movement. But Chayne did not notice. He sat very still, with his eyes fixed upon the photograph. On the outskirts of the group stood Sylvia’s father. Younger, slighter of build, with a face unlined and a boyish grace which had long since gone—but undoubtedly Sylvia’s father.
The contours of the mountains told Chayne clearly enough in what valley the hotel stood.
“This is Zermatt,” he said, without lifting his eyes.
“Yes,” replied Kenyon, quietly, “a Zermatt you are too young to know,” and then Chayne’s forefinger dropped upon the figure of Sylvia’s father.
“Who is this?” he asked.
Kenyon made no answer.
“It is Gabriel Strood,” Chayne continued.
There was a pause, and then Kenyon confirmed the guess.
“Yes,” he said, and some hint of emotion in his voice made Chayne lift his eyes. The light striking upward through the green shade gave to Kenyon’s face an extraordinary pallor. But it seemed to Chayne that not all the pallor was due to the lamp.
“For six seasons,” Chayne said, “Gabriel Strood came to the Alps. In his first season he made a great name.”
“He was the best climber I have ever seen,” replied Kenyon.
“He had a passion for the mountains. Yet after six years he came back no more. He disappeared. Why?”
Kenyon stood absolutely silent, absolutely still. Perhaps the trouble deepened a little on his face; but that was all. Chayne, however, was bent upon an answer. For Sylvia’s sake alone he must have it, he must know the father into whose clutches she had come.
“You knew Gabriel Strood. Why?”
Kenyon leaned forward and gently took the photograph out of Chayne’s hand. He mixed it with the others, not giving to it a single glance himself, and then replaced them all in the drawer from which he had taken them. He came back to the table and at last answered Chayne:
“John Lattery was your friend. Some of the best hours of your life were passed in his company. You know that now. But you will know it still more surely when you come to my age, whatever happiness may come to you between now and then. The camp-fire, the rock-slab for your floor and the black night about you for walls, the hours of talk, the ridge and the ice-slope, the bad times in storm and mist, the good times in the sunshine, the cold nights of hunger when you were caught by the darkness, the off-days when you lounged at your ease. You won’t forget John Lattery.”
Kenyon spoke very quietly but with a conviction, and, indeed, a certain solemnity, which impressed his companion.
“No,” said Chayne, gently, “I shall not forget John Lattery.” But his question was still unanswered, and by nature he was tenacious. His eyes were still upon Kenyon’s face and he added: “What then?”
“Only this,” said Kenyon. “Gabriel Strood was my John Lattery,” and moving round the table he dropped his hand upon Chayne’s shoulder. “You will ask me no more questions,” he said, with a smile.
“I beg your pardon,” said Chayne.
He had his answer. He knew now that there was something to conceal, that there was a definite reason why Gabriel Strood disappeared.
“Good-night,” he said; and as he left the room he saw Kenyon sink down into his arm-chair. There seemed something sad and very lonely in the attitude of the older man. Once more Michel Revailloud’s warning rose up within his mind.
“When it is all over, and you go home, take care that there is a lighted lamp in the room and the room not empty. Have some one to share your memories when life is nothing but memories.”
At every turn the simple philosophy of Michel Revailloud seemed to obtain an instance and a confirmation. Was that to be his own fate too? Just for a moment he was daunted. He closed the door noiselessly, and going down the stairs let himself out into the street. The night was clear above his head. How was it above the Downs of Dorsetshire, he wondered. He walked along the street very slowly. Garratt Skinner was Gabriel Strood. There was clearly a dark reason for the metamorphosis. It remained for Chayne to discover that reason. But he did not ponder any more upon that problem to-night. He was merely thinking as he walked along the street that Michel Revailloud was a very wise man.