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A.E.W. MASON

THE GUIDE

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Syndicated internationally and published, e.g., in:
The Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1904
The London Magazine (date not ascertained)
The Daily News, Perth, Australia, October 24, 1906

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan from a copy of
The Daily News, Perth, Australia, October 24, 1906

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The Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1904, with "The Guide"



"SO it is all over, monsieur. To-morrow morning you leave for England. Five o'clock, is it not so? I will come to the train for the last shake of the hand."

Alphonse Revailloud smiled at the young suburnt face of his companion as they sat opposite to one another at a little table on the balcony above the roaring glacier stream. The two had touched glasses and drunk. With nightfall there had come, as always, a freshness upon Chamounix. The air of that little town at the bottom of a cup had grown brisk. It was the first week of August. One might have believed it to be the last of spring, even though no wind blew and the day had been close. Both men were silent for a little while. They had been six weeks together, passing from the Bernese Oberland to the Pennine Alps about Zermatt, and from Zermatt to the Aiguilles of Mont Blanc—six weeks of a very true comradeship. Rivers sat and lived through them again. The long, wearisome walks from the valleys to the huts, and from the huts in the dark of the morning, over stones and moraines, to the foot of the climb, were forgotten. He remembered only the cheery evenings in the mountain inns, the sunlit hour upon this or that summit, where there was just room for Revailloud and himself to sit, and the climbs themselves. The traverse of the Matterhorn from Breuil, the rocks of the Shreckhorn, the ice-slope of the Col Dolent, the desperate scramble up the Grépon and the last climb, to-day's traverse of the Aiguilles de Charmoz, crowded upon his memories. He looked upwards from the balcony towards the dark, clear sky. A planet shone in the gaps between Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi, an extra depth of darkness showed where the rock cliffs towered, a paleness where the snowfields glimmered down towards the Glacier des Bossons.

"Yes," he said, "for me it is all over. But not for you, Alphonse. This is the first week of August. You have five weeks still."

Alphonse Revailloud shook his head, and Rivers suddenly became conscious of something very forlorn in his aspect. Revailloud took off his hat and laid it on a chair beside him.

"No, monsieur; I have made my last big expedition to-day."

He was only fifty-four, but he was quite bald, the thin beard upon his chin was very grey, his eyes were bloodshot, his face deeply lined and worn. He had certainly the look this evening of a quite old, sad man.

"You!" exclaimed Rivers. "You go as well as ever. The little chimney on the top of the Charmoz, for instance, to-day—"

"Yes, yes," replied Alphonse. "But my eyes are no longer good. My feet too, burn too much. Les petites courses! They remain for me. I shall lead mules up to the Montanvers, and take parties of ladies to the 'Jardin.'"

He spoke sadly, looking up to the mountains, but without any bitterness.

"It was bound to come, of course, but I admit, monsieur, I do not look forward to leading mules up to the Montanvers. There will be no more travelling, no more visiting old friends at Grindelwald, and Arolla, and Zermatt. It is good, isn't it, to see old friends? All that is over. I shall lead mules up to the Montanvers. I think, monsieur, that life is very sad."

Rivers knew not what to say. He himself was touched. The name of Alphonse Revailloud was historic in the records of the chain of Mont Blanc. Alphonse had been the best of the Chamounix, guides thirty years ago, when the Aiguilles were for the greater part virgin peaks; and of the first ascents the most difficult were associated with his name. Yet now he sat, an old man before his time, with nothing left in life, it seemed, but to conduct parties on the mer de glace and lead mules up to the Montanvers—a sad, dull life for a great climber.

"You never married, Alphonse?" said Rivers out of his sympathy. The guide was to be penned in the valley of Chamounix; a wife and children would have made the pen more comfortable.

"Never."

"Did you ever wish to?"

"Once, monsieur. But I think that I am very fortunate not to have had my wish," he said, with a smile. "She was fond of comforts and luxuries. And those tastes will not match with poverty."

"Poverty?"

"Yes. We have two months in the year, that's all. If we make two thousand francs, monsieur, we are fortunate."

Eighty pounds a year! Rivers compared the sum with the earnings of a professional cricketer in England. It seemed very small. And these men risked their lives into the bargain. Rivers remembered a sentence which Alphonse had uttered to one of those who decry the risks and increase the accidents in the Alps. "Il y a toujours du danger," he had said. It was as though Alphonse had been following Rivers's thoughts. For he suddenly leaned forward.

"There was an accident upon the mountain we ascended to-day. It happened a little while ago. It was an Englishman. He preferred to climb with only one guide. He had climbed the Charmoz, and was descending. He was clever and sure upon the rocks, but not safe at all upon ice. I was sitting here with his guide the afternoon before, a man from the Val Tournanche, and he was saying that this would be the last climb he would undertake with Mr. Briggs alone. Mr. Briggs, that was the name, but you see he made that last climb, and, coming down, one of them slipped upon the glacier. I showed you the crevasse where we found them. The glacier is steep above it, and there was very little snow that year. It was ice, ice, ice everywhere, where, as a rule, there is snow. I have never known glaciers so uncovered."

"Even this year?" said the Englishman.

"This year it is about the same," replied Alphonse. "Perhaps that is why I remember that incident so vividly. Yet I do not think that is the reason. You will understand perhaps." He was silent for a moment or two, and then resumed.

"I had come over Mont Blanc from Courmayeur that day, and in the evening I heard that Mr. Briggs had not returned. We went up to the Plan de l'Aiguille in the night, the hut where you slept yesterday, monsieur. There were half a dozen of us, but I was the oldest. At all events, they looked to me for direction. We reached the Glacier de Nantillon at daybreak, and ascended it to the rocks, between that glacier and the Glacier du Midi. At the top of the rocks we took to the glacier again, following in the steps which they had cut. Finally we came to the great crevasse. Beyond its upper edge the glacier rose steeply towards the great seracs.* We looked down into its depths. It was deeper then than it is now, yet not so deep but that we could see the bottom. The two men were lying there quite still. We called to them. They did not move, nor answer.

[* A serac (originally from Swiss French sérac) is a block or column of glacial ice, often formed by intersecting crevasses on a glacier. Commonly house-sized or larger, they are dangerous to mountaineers since they may topple with little warning. Even when stabilized by persistent cold weather, they can be an impediment to glacier travel. Wikipedia]

"It was evident how the accident had happened. Both men were hurrying over the glacier in the afternoon. They were right to hurry. For there were some of the seracs on the top of the glacier which looked ready to fall, and it would not have been wise to have loitered underneath them in the afternoon. But the guide was no doubt leading too fast for Mr. Briggs, who was not safe on ice. At the point where they slipped you will remember that it is necessary to traverse the glacier horizontally; and if one man slipped there he would swing down the whole length of the rope before the jerk came upon the other. No doubt that is what happened. Mr. Briggs slipped, and dragged his guide out of his steps. Jean Prévôt, a young porter, and I were lowered together into the crevasse. We found both men quite dead. The crevasse was not so deep but that the guide might have climbed out of it if he had lived. But his neck was broken, and he must have died at once. Mr. Briggs had lived for a little while. That was clear, for the snow, just about where he lay, was all kicked by his feet. He had lain there for a little while and suffered. We tied a rope about his middle, and then, holding him as well as I could, I climbed up, while those above hauled upon the rope. His face was covered with blood, and he was frozen. It was difficult to support him."

Alphonse described the recovery of the bodies with a matter-of-fact minuteness of detail.

"His head continually knocked against mine. At last we reached the mouth of the crevasse, and were drawn up into the sunlight. But we very nearly were dropped to the bottom again. For, as our heads rose above the lip of the crevasse, I saw the face of the guide who was hauling upon the rope in front of me suddenly go green. He let go the rope, and was very sick. Luckily, there were others behind him, older men, to whom this expedition was no new thing, and they held firm. Well, we were brought out of the crevasse, and I was lowered into it again. At the bottom I found Jean Prévôt standing by the side of the dead guide. He was shivering, partly with cold, perhaps, but not altogether. He pointed to the dead man, and said 'Look!' I looked, and I saw that his head was completely frozen into a block of ice. We had to cut the ice away with our axes, and while I did the work Jean Prévôt stood at my side, saying, with a kind of horror in his voice: 'See what any of us poor guides may come to!' I think that it is because of those words that I remember the accident so vividly to-night."

"You felt the horror, too," said Rivers.

"Then, yes. But to-night not so much. To-night I feel, monsieur, that life is very sad."

He drank up his glass of beer and rose from his chair.

"You have to pack, monsieur." He held out his hand. "When you come back next year, with another guide, you will perhaps come and see me."

"Of course."

They shook hands, and Alphonse put on his hat and walked away. Certainly, although his walk was sure, he had the look of a very old man. To Rivers, whose heart had been touched by the guide's unexpected words, there was more than age visible in his aspect. There, was a most pitiful look of loneliness as well.


Alphonse walked through the lighted streets. One or two of his friends called to him from the group which crowds at night the space where the four streets meet, but he took no notice. His thoughts were back in the early days of the Mont Blanc chain, when the Dru and the Géant and the Grépon and the Pic Sans Nom were all unscaled. He recalled the many attempts and defeats; the moments when you thought you might go forward, but were very sure that if you did you could not come back; the moments when it was decided to venture all upon that chance; the exhilaration of effort, the final triumph. But most of all he thought of that crevasse upon the Glacier du Nantillon, and of the guide lying there with his head frozen in the ice, killed suddenly in the fullness of his strength. To Alphonse the death seemed enviable. He came to the end of the town and walked for a little way between fields. It was true that his name was associated with many of the aiguilles which towered, an extra depth of darkness, in the dark sky above him. But to-morrow he would begin upon "les petites courses." To-morrow he would be leading mules up to the Montanvers. He pushed open the door of his dark and empty cottage. "See what any of us poor guides may come to," he said to himself, repeating the words which Jean Prévôt had spoken in the crevasse, but in a very different connection.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.