It was about the middle of the month of February when Vendale and Obenreizer set forth on their expedition. The winter being a hard one, the time was bad for travellers. So bad was it that these two travellers, coming to Strasbourg, found its great inns almost empty. And even the few people they did encounter in that city, who had started from England or from Paris on business journeys towards the interior of Switzerland, were turning back.
Many of the railroads in Switzerland that tourists pass easily enough now, were almost or quite impracticable then. Some were not begun; more were not completed. On such as were open, there were still large gaps of old road where communication in the winter season was often stopped; on others, there were weak points where the new work was not safe, either under conditions of severe frost, or of rapid thaw. The running of trains on this last class was not to be counted on in the worst time of the year, was contingent upon weather, or was wholly abandoned through the months considered the most dangerous.
At Strasbourg there were more travellers’ stories afloat, respecting the difficulties of the way further on, than there were travellers to relate them. Many of these tales were as wild as usual; but the more modestly marvellous did derive some colour from the circumstance that people were indisputably turning back. However, as the road to Basle was open, Vendale’s resolution to push on was in no wise disturbed. Obenreizer’s resolution was necessarily Vendale’s, seeing that he stood at bay thus desperately: He must be ruined, or must destroy the evidence that Vendale carried about him, even if he destroyed Vendale with it.
The state of mind of each of these two fellow-travellers towards the other was this. Obenreizer, encircled by impending ruin through Vendale’s quickness of action, and seeing the circle narrowed every hour by Vendale’s energy, hated him with the animosity of a fierce cunning lower animal. He had always had instinctive movements in his breast against him; perhaps, because of that old sore of gentleman and peasant; perhaps, because of the openness of his nature, perhaps, because of his better looks; perhaps, because of his success with Marguerite; perhaps, on all those grounds, the two last not the least. And now he saw in him, besides, the hunter who was tracking him down. Vendale, on the other hand, always contending generously against his first vague mistrust, now felt bound to contend against it more than ever: reminding himself, “He is Marguerite’s guardian. We are on perfectly friendly terms; he is my companion of his own proposal, and can have no interested motive in sharing this undesirable journey.” To which pleas in behalf of Obenreizer, chance added one consideration more, when they came to Basle after a journey of more than twice the average duration.
They had had a late dinner, and were alone in an inn room there, overhanging the Rhine: at that place rapid and deep, swollen and loud. Vendale lounged upon a couch, and Obenreizer walked to and fro: now, stopping at the window, looking at the crooked reflection of the town lights in the dark water (and peradventure thinking, “If I could fling him into it!”); now, resuming his walk with his eyes upon the floor.
“Where shall I rob him, if I can? Where shall I murder him, if I must?” So, as he paced the room, ran the river, ran the river, ran the river.
The burden seemed to him, at last, to be growing so plain, that he stopped; thinking it as well to suggest another burden to his companion.
“The Rhine sounds to-night,” he said with a smile, “like the old waterfall at home. That waterfall which my mother showed to travellers (I told you of it once). The sound of it changed with the weather, as does the sound of all falling waters and flowing waters. When I was pupil of the watchmaker, I remembered it as sometimes saying to me for whole days, ‘Who are you, my little wretch? Who are you, my little wretch?’ I remembered it as saying, other times, when its sound was hollow, and storm was coming up the Pass: ‘Boom, boom, boom. Beat him, beat him, beat him.’ Like my mother enraged — if she was my mother.”
“If she was?” said Vendale, gradually changing his attitude to a sitting one. “If she was? Why do you say ‘if’?”
“What do I know?” replied the other negligently, throwing up his hands and letting them fall as they would. “What would you have? I am so obscurely born, that how can I say? I was very young, and all the rest of the family were men and women, and my so-called parents were old. Anything is possible of a case like that.”
“Did you ever doubt —”
“I told you once, I doubt the marriage of those two,” he replied, throwing up his hands again, as if he were throwing the unprofitable subject away. “But here I am in Creation. I come of no fine family. What does it matter?”
“At least you are Swiss,” said Vendale, after following him with his eyes to and fro.
“How do I know?” he retorted abruptly, and stopping to look back over his shoulder. “I say to you, at least you are English. How do you know?”
“By what I have been told from infancy.”
“Ah! I know of myself that way.”
“And,” added Vendale, pursuing the thought that he could not drive back, “by my earliest recollections.”
“I also. I know of myself that way — if that way satisfies.”
“Does it not satisfy you?”
“It must. There is nothing like ‘it must’ in this little world. It must. Two short words those, but stronger than long proof or reasoning.”
“You and poor Wilding were born in the same year. You were nearly of an age,” said Vendale, again thoughtfully looking after him as he resumed his pacing up and down.
“Yes. Very nearly.”
Could Obenreizer be the missing man? In the unknown associations of things, was there a subtler meaning than he himself thought, in that theory so often on his lips about the smallness of the world? Had the Swiss letter presenting him followed so close on Mrs. Goldstraw’s revelation concerning the infant who had been taken away to Switzerland, because he was that infant grown a man? In a world where so many depths lie unsounded, it might be. The chances, or the laws — call them either — that had wrought out the revival of Vendale’s own acquaintance with Obenreizer, and had ripened it into intimacy, and had brought them here together this present winter night, were hardly less curious; while read by such a light, they were seen to cohere towards the furtherance of a continuous and an intelligible purpose.
Vendale’s awakened thoughts ran high while his eyes musingly followed Obenreizer pacing up and down the room, the river ever running to the tune: “Where shall I rob him, if I can? Where shall I murder him, if I must?” The secret of his dead friend was in no hazard from Vendale’s lips; but just as his friend had died of its weight, so did he in his lighter succession feel the burden of the trust, and the obligation to follow any clue, however obscure. He rapidly asked himself, would he like this man to be the real Wilding? No. Argue down his mistrust as he might, he was unwilling to put such a substitute in the place of his late guileless, outspoken childlike partner. He rapidly asked himself, would he like this man to be rich? No. He had more power than enough over Marguerite as it was, and wealth might invest him with more. Would he like this man to be Marguerite’s Guardian, and yet proved to stand in no degree of relationship towards her, however disconnected and distant? No. But these were not considerations to come between him and fidelity to the dead. Let him see to it that they passed him with no other notice than the knowledge that they HAD passed him, and left him bent on the discharge of a solemn duty. And he did see to it, so soon that he followed his companion with ungrudging eyes, while he still paced the room; that companion, whom he supposed to be moodily reflecting on his own birth, and not on another man’s — least of all what man’s — violent Death.
The road in advance from Basle to Neuchatel was better than had been represented. The latest weather had done it good. Drivers, both of horses and mules, had come in that evening after dark, and had reported nothing more difficult to be overcome than trials of patience, harness, wheels, axles, and whipcord. A bargain was soon struck for a carriage and horses, to take them on in the morning, and to start before daylight.
“Do you lock your door at night when travelling?” asked Obenreizer, standing warming his hands by the wood fire in Vendale’s chamber, before going to his own.
“Not I. I sleep too soundly.”
“You are so sound a sleeper?” he retorted, with an admiring look. “What a blessing!”
“Anything but a blessing to the rest of the house,” rejoined Vendale, “if I had to be knocked up in the morning from the outside of my bedroom door.”
“I, too,” said Obenreizer, “leave open my room. But let me advise you, as a Swiss who knows: always, when you travel in my country, put your papers — and, of course, your money — under your pillow. Always the same place.”
“You are not complimentary to your countrymen,” laughed Vendale.
“My countrymen,” said Obenreizer, with that light touch of his friend’s elbows by way of Good-Night and benediction, “I suppose are like the majority of men. And the majority of men will take what they can get. Adieu! At four in the morning.”
“Adieu! At four.”
Left to himself, Vendale raked the logs together, sprinkled over them the white wood-ashes lying on the hearth, and sat down to compose his thoughts. But they still ran high on their latest theme, and the running of the river tended to agitate rather than to quiet them. As he sat thinking, what little disposition he had had to sleep departed. He felt it hopeless to lie down yet, and sat dressed by the fire. Marguerite, Wilding, Obenreizer, the business he was then upon, and a thousand hopes and doubts that had nothing to do with it, occupied his mind at once. Everything seemed to have power over him but slumber. The departed disposition to sleep kept far away.
He had sat for a long time thinking, on the hearth, when his candle burned down and its light went out. It was of little moment; there was light enough in the fire. He changed his attitude, and, leaning his arm on the chair-back, and his chin upon that hand, sat thinking still.
But he sat between the fire and the bed, and, as the fire flickered in the play of air from the fast-flowing river, his enlarged shadow fluttered on the white wall by the bedside. His attitude gave it an air, half of mourning and half of bending over the bed imploring. His eyes were observant of it, when he became troubled by the disagreeable fancy that it was like Wilding’s shadow, and not his own.
A slight change of place would cause it to disappear. He made the change, and the apparition of his disturbed fancy vanished. He now sat in the shade of a little nook beside the fire, and the door of the room was before him.
It had a long cumbrous iron latch. He saw the latch slowly and softly rise. The door opened a very little, and came to again, as though only the air had moved it. But he saw that the latch was out of the hasp.
The door opened again very slowly, until it opened wide enough to admit some one. It afterwards remained still for a while, as though cautiously held open on the other side. The figure of a man then entered, with its face turned towards the bed, and stood quiet just within the door. Until it said, in a low half-whisper, at the same time taking one stop forward: “Vendale!”
“What now?” he answered, springing from his seat; “who is it?”
It was Obenreizer, and he uttered a cry of surprise as Vendale came upon him from that unexpected direction. “Not in bed?” he said, catching him by both shoulders with an instinctive tendency to a struggle. “Then something IS wrong!”
“What do you mean?” said Vendale, releasing himself.
“First tell me; you are not ill?”
“I have had a bad dream about you. How is it that I see you up and dressed?”
“My good fellow, I may as well ask you how it is that I see YOU up and undressed?”
“I have told you why. I have had a bad dream about you. I tried to rest after it, but it was impossible. I could not make up my mind to stay where I was without knowing you were safe; and yet I could not make up my mind to come in here. I have been minutes hesitating at the door. It is so easy to laugh at a dream that you have not dreamed. Where is your candle?”
“I have a whole one in my room. Shall I fetch it?”
His room was very near, and he was absent for but a few seconds. Coming back with the candle in his hand, he kneeled down on the hearth and lighted it. As he blew with his breath a charred billet into flame for the purpose, Vendale, looking down at him, saw that his lips were white and not easy of control.
“Yes!” said Obenreizer, setting the lighted candle on the table, “it was a bad dream. Only look at me!”
His feet were bare; his red-flannel shirt was thrown back at the throat, and its sleeves were rolled above the elbows; his only other garment, a pair of under pantaloons or drawers, reaching to the ankles, fitted him close and tight. A certain lithe and savage appearance was on his figure, and his eyes were very bright.
“If there had been a wrestle with a robber, as I dreamed,” said Obenreizer, “you see, I was stripped for it.”
“And armed too,” said Vendale, glancing at his girdle.
“A traveller’s dagger, that I always carry on the road,” he answered carelessly, half drawing it from its sheath with his left hand, and putting it back again. “Do you carry no such thing?”
“Nothing of the kind.”
“No pistols?” said Obenreizer, glancing at the table, and from it to the untouched pillow.
“Nothing of the sort.”
“You Englishmen are so confident! You wish to sleep?”
“I have wished to sleep this long time, but I can’t do it.”
“I neither, after the bad dream. My fire has gone the way of your candle. May I come and sit by yours? Two o’clock! It will so soon be four, that it is not worth the trouble to go to bed again.”
“I shall not take the trouble to go to bed at all, now,” said Vendale; “sit here and keep me company, and welcome.”
Going back to his room to arrange his dress, Obenreizer soon returned in a loose cloak and slippers, and they sat down on opposite sides of the hearth. In the interval Vendale had replenished the fire from the wood-basket in his room, and Obenreizer had put upon the table a flask and cup from his.
“Common cabaret brandy, I am afraid,” he said, pouring out; “bought upon the road, and not like yours from Cripple Corner. But yours is exhausted; so much the worse. A cold night, a cold time of night, a cold country, and a cold house. This may be better than nothing; try it.”
Vendale took the cup, and did so.
“How do you find it?”
“It has a coarse after-flavour,” said Vendale, giving back the cup with a slight shudder, “and I don’t like it.”
“You are right,” said Obenreizer, tasting, and smacking his lips; “it HAS a coarse after-flavour, and I don’t like it. Booh! It burns, though!” He had flung what remained in the cup upon the fire.
Each of them leaned an elbow on the table, reclined his head upon his hand, and sat looking at the flaring logs. Obenreizer remained watchful and still; but Vendale, after certain nervous twitches and starts, in one of which he rose to his feet and looked wildly about him, fell into the strangest confusion of dreams. He carried his papers in a leather case or pocket-book, in an inner breast-pocket of his buttoned travelling-coat; and whatever he dreamed of, in the lethargy that got possession of him, something importunate in those papers called him out of that dream, though he could not wake from it. He was berated on the steppes of Russia (some shadowy person gave that name to the place) with Marguerite; and yet the sensation of a hand at his breast, softly feeling the outline of the packet- book as he lay asleep before the fire, was present to him. He was ship-wrecked in an open boat at sea, and having lost his clothes, had no other covering than an old sail; and yet a creeping hand, tracing outside all the other pockets of the dress he actually wore, for papers, and finding none answer its touch, warned him to rouse himself. He was in the ancient vault at Cripple Corner, to which was transferred the very bed substantial and present in that very room at Basle; and Wilding (not dead, as he had supposed, and yet he did not wonder much) shook him, and whispered, “Look at that man! Don’t you see he has risen, and is turning the pillow? Why should he turn the pillow, if not to seek those papers that are in your breast? Awake!” And yet he slept, and wandered off into other dreams.
Watchful and still, with his elbow on the table, and his head upon that hand, his companion at length said: “Vendale! We are called. Past Four!” Then, opening his eyes, he saw, turned sideways on him, the filmy face of Obenreizer.
“You have been in a heavy sleep,” he said. “The fatigue of constant travelling and the cold!”
“I am broad awake now,” cried Vendale, springing up, but with an unsteady footing. “Haven’t you slept at all?”
“I may have dozed, but I seem to have been patiently looking at the fire. Whether or no, we must wash, and breakfast, and turn out. Past four, Vendale; past four!”
It was said in a tone to rouse him, for already he was half asleep again. In his preparation for the day, too, and at his breakfast, he was often virtually asleep while in mechanical action. It was not until the cold dark day was closing in, that he had any distincter impressions of the ride than jingling bells, bitter weather, slipping horses, frowning hill-sides, bleak woods, and a stoppage at some wayside house of entertainment, where they had passed through a cow-house to reach the travellers’ room above. He had been conscious of little more, except of Obenreizer sitting thoughtful at his side all day, and eyeing him much.
But when he shook off his stupor, Obenreizer was not at his side. The carriage was stopping to bait at another wayside house; and a line of long narrow carts, laden with casks of wine, and drawn by horses with a quantity of blue collar and head-gear, were baiting too. These came from the direction in which the travellers were going, and Obenreizer (not thoughtful now, but cheerful and alert) was talking with the foremost driver. As Vendale stretched his limbs, circulated his blood, and cleared off the lees of his lethargy, with a sharp run to and fro in the bracing air, the line of carts moved on: the drivers all saluting Obenreizer as they passed him.
“Who are those?” asked Vendale.
“They are our carriers — Defresnier and Company’s,” replied Obenreizer. “Those are our casks of wine.” He was singing to himself, and lighting a cigar.
“I have been drearily dull company to-day,” said Vendale. “I don’t know what has been the matter with me.”
“You had no sleep last night; and a kind of brain-congestion frequently comes, at first, of such cold,” said Obenreizer. “I have seen it often. After all, we shall have our journey for nothing, it seems.”
“How for nothing?”
“The House is at Milan. You know, we are a Wine House at Neuchatel, and a Silk House at Milan? Well, Silk happening to press of a sudden, more than Wine, Defresnier was summoned to Milan. Rolland, the other partner, has been taken ill since his departure, and the doctors will allow him to see no one. A letter awaits you at Neuchatel to tell you so. I have it from our chief carrier whom you saw me talking with. He was surprised to see me, and said he had that word for you if he met you. What do you do? Go back?”
“Go on,” said Vendale.
“On? Yes. Across the Alps, and down to Milan.”
Obenreizer stopped in his smoking to look at Vendale, and then smoked heavily, looked up the road, looked down the road, looked down at the stones in the road at his feet.
“I have a very serious matter in charge,” said Vendale; “more of these missing forms may be turned to as bad account, or worse: I am urged to lose no time in helping the House to take the thief; and nothing shall turn me back.”
“No?” cried Obenreizer, taking out his cigar to smile, and giving his hand to his fellow-traveller. “Then nothing shall turn ME back. Ho, driver! Despatch. Quick there! Let us push on!”
They travelled through the night. There had been snow, and there was a partial thaw, and they mostly travelled at a foot-pace, and always with many stoppages to breathe the splashed and floundering horses. After an hour’s broad daylight, they drew rein at the inn- door at Neuchatel, having been some eight-and-twenty hours in conquering some eighty English miles.
When they had hurriedly refreshed and changed, they went together to the house of business of Defresnier and Company. There they found the letter which the wine-carrier had described, enclosing the tests and comparisons of hand-writing essential to the discovery of the Forger. Vendale’s determination to press forward, without resting, being already taken, the only question to delay them was by what Pass could they cross the Alps? Respecting the state of the two Passes of the St. Gotthard and the Simplon, the guides and mule- drivers differed greatly; and both passes were still far enough off, to prevent the travellers from having the benefit of any recent experience of either. Besides which, they well knew that a fall of snow might altogether change the described conditions in a single hour, even if they were correctly stated. But, on the whole, the Simplon appearing to be the hopefuller route, Vendale decided to take it. Obenreizer bore little or no part in the discussion, and scarcely spoke.
To Geneva, to Lausanne, along the level margin of the lake to Vevay, so into the winding valley between the spurs of the mountains, and into the valley of the Rhone. The sound of the carriage-wheels, as they rattled on, through the day, through the night, became as the wheels of a great clock, recording the hours. No change of weather varied the journey, after it had hardened into a sullen frost. In a sombre-yellow sky, they saw the Alpine ranges; and they saw enough of snow on nearer and much lower hill-tops and hill-sides, to sully, by contrast, the purity of lake, torrent, and waterfall, and make the villages look discoloured and dirty. But no snow fell, nor was there any snow-drift on the road. The stalking along the valley of more or less of white mist, changing on their hair and dress into icicles, was the only variety between them and the gloomy sky. And still by day, and still by night, the wheels. And still they rolled, in the hearing of one of them, to the burden, altered from the burden of the Rhine: “The time is gone for robbing him alive, and I must murder him.”
They came, at length, to the poor little town of Brieg, at the foot of the Simplon. They came there after dark, but yet could see how dwarfed men’s works and men became with the immense mountains towering over them. Here they must lie for the night; and here was warmth of fire, and lamp, and dinner, and wine, and after-conference resounding, with guides and drivers. No human creature had come across the Pass for four days. The snow above the snow-line was too soft for wheeled carriage, and not hard enough for sledge. There was snow in the sky. There had been snow in the sky for days past, and the marvel was that it had not fallen, and the certainty was that it must fall. No vehicle could cross. The journey might be tried on mules, or it might be tried on foot; but the best guides must be paid danger-price in either case, and that, too, whether they succeeded in taking the two travellers across, or turned for safety and brought them back.
In this discussion, Obenreizer bore no part whatever. He sat silently smoking by the fire until the room was cleared and Vendale referred to him.
“Bah! I am weary of these poor devils and their trade,” he said, in reply. “Always the same story. It is the story of their trade to- day, as it was the story of their trade when I was a ragged boy. What do you and I want? We want a knapsack each, and a mountain- staff each. We want no guide; we should guide him; he would not guide us. We leave our portmanteaus here, and we cross together. We have been on the mountains together before now, and I am mountain-born, and I know this Pass — Pass! — rather High Road! — by heart. We will leave these poor devils, in pity, to trade with others; but they must not delay us to make a pretence of earning money. Which is all they mean.”
Vendale, glad to be quit of the dispute, and to cut the knot: active, adventurous, bent on getting forward, and therefore very susceptible to the last hint: readily assented. Within two hours, they had purchased what they wanted for the expedition, had packed their knapsacks, and lay down to sleep.
At break of day, they found half the town collected in the narrow street to see them depart. The people talked together in groups; the guides and drivers whispered apart, and looked up at the sky; no one wished them a good journey.
As they began the ascent, a gleam of run shone from the otherwise unaltered sky, and for a moment turned the tin spires of the town to silver.
“A good omen!” said Vendale (though it died out while he spoke). “Perhaps our example will open the Pass on this side.”
“No; we shall not be followed,” returned Obenreizer, looking up at the sky and back at the valley. “We shall be alone up yonder.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07