The Pass of the Glaciers
A small party of English travellers were hastily crossing one of the defiles in the lower Alps when evening began to close. The youngest of this party, a girl about seven years old, was wakened by a boy who considered himself the principal, to admire the rose-colour which sunset lends to those silver peaks among the clouds, when there was a sudden crash, a shrill scream from may voices, then a pause like death. The vehicle had been over-thrown by the drunken or careless muleteers, and was now lying crashed and shattered in the depth of an Alpine valley.
Henry Stewart, the boy we have named as the chief of the small party, roused himself first to look for little Marianne, the sleeper so dismally disturbed. Her nurse lay dead among the spiky rocks in what seemed to have been the bed of a torrent — the French valet-de-place and the tutor to whom he had been entrusted were nowhere to be seen; and his shouts were not answered except by the poor little girl who clung round him, asking what had happened. Henry looked carefully about him — they were on the smooth face of one mass of granite, raised almost like a terrace mound in the ravine which an earthquake or a torrent had torn between two precipices whose brows still leaned towards each other and seemed more than a hundred feet above him. Below was a little stream gurgling and foaming among the shivered rocks which obstructed it. To ascend was impossible, to descend into such dark and slippery chasms would have been madness, and little Marianne could not be left alone. The carriage was some shelter, for its roof, cushions, and one door were not demolished. Henry put the companion of his misfortune into the best cradle he could contrive, but sleep was not the sole necessary: it was late, the air bitterly cold, and she had eaten nothing since they left Grenoble in haste to avoid a hostile army.
There were a few biscuits and some flasks of milk and wine in the pockets of the cabriolet, and Henry pacified her with a few morsels, hardly daring to taste himself what might be so soon exhausted. But sleep came to both, and another morning. The English boy now felt the advantage of his hardy habits. He could climb, swim, and dig with the energy of a yeoman’s son though the heir and hope of a very splendid family. He had sense enough to feel how he must now prove the nobility of his nature and the uses of his education. The forlorn child whose nurse had perished was very unable to assist or share his endeavour for life. While he looked sorrowfully at the glaciers rising round his prison, and the mighty piles of snow which the first death-wind might hurl into it, he heard a sound like the cry of a bird. He snatched a pistol from its place in the cabriolet, then hesitated to waste shot which might be so precious. The cry came again and again, weaker as it was repeated, and our little hero saw in the crevice of the rock which supported him, a living thing nestled or crouching as if unable to rise. Henry leaped boldly towards it and found a miserable ragged boy about his own age, with his leg broken. He spoke a strange jargon of bad French and worse Italian, but Henry learned that the muleteer, his father, had permitted him to ride behind the cabriolet a little way, as his feet were unable to bear a longer walk with the load of wooden wares he was carrying for sale. Henry recollected all he had ever heard of surgery, and made a tolerable arrangement of the broken bone assisted by his other nurseling, and more by the poor boy’s patient courage. One of the wine-flasks was opened, and Marianne whose peevishness had been to frequent during the long, cold night, was aghast with surprise at the gratitude he showed for one draught. He was too lame to guide them, but he knew exactly the situation of the valley, the names of the nearest towns and the roads approaching it. What was still more useful at present, he had in his pack of wooden wares, two or three cups unbroken, a rabbit-trap, and pack thread in abundance. He told Henry how to construct a snare for birds and where to seek the few herbs this ravine afforded. Marianne, whose industry had never before sufficed to arrange her own hair, began to think of breakfast. To make a fire, boil the coffee which their store-basket supplied, and eat a very limited allowance of dry biscuit, was a novelty at first amusing, and her companion took care to hide his serious calculation of the future. Their young Savoyard had never tasted such a delicious meal, and the comic grimaces of his sunburned meagre face completed her good humour.
Henry placed the spoiled child in her cabriolet as the safest recess, and scrambled into the depth of the ravine to give the nurse a grave. Stones enough were soon piled over her, and the young grave-digger could not forget that his own might be less sheltered. Marianne’s impatient cries compelled him to return. She had seen a goat among the clefts and the Savoyard boy, whose elf-looks were hardly less wild and grim than the ancient mountaineer’s beard, could not make her understand that such visitors were precious. He told Henry how to construct a snare for these animals whose milk would supply some part of the wants, and imitated their cry with marvellous skill to allure them. But to-day was not to be their sole concern: they had a long and dreary season to await. For Henry and his tutor were only travellers through this province — his family were in Italy, and if the muleteer had perished or his tutor was unable to give information, months or weeks at least might pass before their rescue. Marianne was almost unknown to him. Her nurse had begged the escort of his valet and a share in the cabriolet hired for his conveyance to Lombardy, representing her ignorance of foreign customs and her haste to join her dying mistress. Therefore he knew not how little to expect from English enquirers embarrassed by the dangers of war now raging from the Baltic to the Hellespont. She was shy and sullen, very helpless, and selfish in proportion. The poor Swiss boy Julien was likely to prove a more thankful and useful associate, but his words gave no reason to hope that his father, the brutal muleteer, would take any pains to discover his fate. The valuable baggage carried by the sumpter mule would more probably tempt this man to conceal the catastrophe if he was the only survivor except the children. They might be expected to perish undiscovered if their fall had not been instantly fatal.
Henry stirred himself to action by these thoughts. The first business was to secure a dwelling place, and this was contrived by lodging the cabriolet’s remains in a recess over which the rock formed a kind of arch. The cushions and mat were reserved for Marianne’s bed, and the side of the carriage furnished a slender division for her chamber. Julien’s store of tools and domestic utensils, aided by his active ingenuity, supplied many comforts. One of the mules had been drowned in the stream — another was found killed by its fall, and the young mountaineer instructed Henry how to make its skin useful. It would furnish, he said, some additions to their stock of shoes and a kind of bottles to receive the oil he hoped to procure from some entrapped bear. Marianne was more desirous to see a goat, as their scanty stock of coffee was soon spent, and she gave some help when the two Crusoes constructed a chevaux-de-frise round their hut and the little patch of verdure, to secure this prize. To milk this goat, feed a few pigeons which had been snared, and boil their eggs, was her business, and as the lameness of poor Julien prevented much labour on his part, she began to find diversion in teaching him to read. Two or three books were in the portmanteau preserved in the cabriolet, and seeing how little Julien regarded his scanty garments, these books seemed worth more than the fine clothes and trinkets she had lost. But needles and thread would have been more valued now than in her hours of idleness; and Henry was amused to see the Savoyard’s skill in making needles from the bones of the small fish he caught in the stream, and supplying them with fibres of vegetables strong and fine enough for thread. This stream was sufficiently near their home to enrich the goat’s little pasture, and accommodate their kettle of Julien’s manufacture. A painter would have rejoiced to see Marianne’s cherub face as she came with water in the morning, her hair full of the white flowers of the Alps. Julien plaited straw bonnets for her and Henry, shewed her how to preserve the game they killed in ice, and to chose herbs for the potage he made like a French cook. One of these savoury potages was just served up when a dog, probably attracted by the scent, was heard barking on the very edge of the rock which hung like a penthouse over them. A friendly whistle and a tempting morsel brought him by one bold leap to their feet. Unexpected joy! — his collar shewed him to be a wolf-dog belonging to the convent of St. Bernard — perhaps one of those tutored to seek and guide distressed travellers. The Grand St. Bernard was not half a day’s journey from this dell, but it was impossible to ascend its step sides, and the stream was too deep and fierce to allow a passage at its outlet unless it subsided. Julien said even Buonaparte’s advanced guard had been compelled to cross it by ropes thrown from the peak of one precipice to its opposite. Still the dog was precious: he might carry tidings to the convent if they could not follow him. Henry had a pencil and paper; Marianne could mark, and she wrought their names in a pocket-handkerchief with her hair to wrap round his billet lest damp should render it illegible. He wrote it in three languages, fastened the packet firmly in the dog’s collar, and Julien plaited pack thread into a rope strong enough. This rope he balanced with a stone, and after many vain attempts threw it over the stump of a dwarf fir in the face of the precipice. Then fastening the other end to a basket he had made, he begged Henry to place himself in it with the dog, proposing to draw them up together to a flat abutment of rock from whence they could easily reach the summit; and the dog, firmly attached to Henry by thongs he had cut from the dead mule, would guide him to St. Bernard. But the cries of Marianne, and his own horror at the thought of leaving her desolate, determined Henry to send Julien, though his lameness made it hazardous. They agreed to wait a few days till his limb was stronger, as the wild grapes, the goat, the mosses in their soup, and the soft bark Julien contrived to mix with dried fish-bones and bake as bread, prevented famine. But the Bize-wind might come and the season of avalanches was not far distant. Bears had been heard howling, and the stream swelled almost to the verge of the little green terrace Henry called the queen fairy’s parlour. Poor Julien ventured at last unwillingly and with many lingering looks. They watched him with eager eyes as the basket ascended and had nearly reached the place of safety when the dog suddenly sprang out, and losing its balance, the basket and Julien were dragged along the precipice till the thong broke and he fell. Henry saved him by clinging to the rope and poising it to afford him some support. He was miserably bruised and laid on Marianne’s cushions almost speechless. “The dog is gone,” he said when his strength returned. “You will be saved.” They watched him two nights with all the comfort they could minister, and hardly heard the voices which called them when the third day began to break. Every hour they had rung the bell they had taken from the wolf-dog’s collar, hoping to be heard by his owners or some kind travellers. Henry now ran to the highest rock he could climb and fired the pistol he had reserved for such a signal. Rope-ladders were seen descending, and Philippe, their faithful valet, sprang down, caught the children in his arms and devoured them with kisses. Julien was laid in a safe conveyance and Caesar, the noble wolf-dog of St. Bernard, seemed to claim his share of congratulations. He had carried his dispatches to the good Brotherhood who had received the tutor when brought to their convent, plundered and stunned with blows by the muleteer’s ruffian gang. Their skill soon enabled Julien to accompany his new friends to England, where Henry Stewart presented him to his father as the beginner of his most useful education, and the best friend of Marianne who came from the dell in the Alps richer in health, patience, and good humour than Sinbad from the Valley of Diamonds.
There is still in the rock-cove where their happiest holidays were spent, a well bordered with flowers, especially the Forget-me-not inscribed to St. Julian, the patron of travellers and of travellers’ tales.