A little more and Jean Rasteaux would have been a giant. Brittany men are small as a rule, but Jean was an exception. He was a powerful young fellow who, up to the time he was compelled to enter the army, had spent his life in dragging heavy nets over the sides of a boat. He knew the Brittany coast, rugged and indented as it is, as well as he knew the road from the little cafe on the square to the dwelling of his father on the hillside overlooking the sea. Never before had he been out of sound of the waves. He was a man who, like Herve Riel, might have saved the fleet, but France, with the usual good sense of officialism, sent this man of the coast into the mountains, and Jean Rasteaux became a soldier in the Alpine Corps. If he stood on the highest mountain peak, Jean might look over illimitable wastes of snow, but he could catch neither sound nor sight of the sea.
Men who mix with mountains become as rough and rugged as the rocks, and the Alpine Corps was a wild body, harsh and brutal. Punishment in the ranks was swift and terrible, for the corps was situated far from any of the civilising things of modern life, and deeds were done which the world knew not of; deeds which would not have been approved if reported at headquarters.
The regiment of which Jean became a unit was stationed in a high valley that had but one outlet, a wild pass down which a mountain river roared and foamed and tossed. The narrow path by the side of this stream was the only way out of or into the valley, for all around, the little plateau was walled in by immense peaks of everlasting snow, dazzling in the sunlight, and luminous even in the still, dark nights. From the peaks to the south, Italy might have been seen, but no man had ever dared to climb any of them. The angry little river was fed from a glacier whose blue breast lay sparkling in the sunshine to the south, and the stream circumnavigated the enclosed plateau, as if trying to find an outlet for its tossing waters.
Jean was terribly lonely in these dreary and unaccustomed solitudes. The white mountains awed him, and the mad roar of the river seemed but poor compensation for the dignified measured thunder of the waves on the broad sands of the Brittany coast.
But Jean was a good-natured giant, and he strove to do whatever was required of him. He was not quick at repartee, and the men mocked his Breton dialect. He became the butt for all their small and often mean jokes, and from the first he was very miserable, for, added to his yearning for the sea, whose steady roar he heard in his dreams at night, he felt the utter lack of all human sympathy.
At first he endeavoured, by unfailing good nature and prompt obedience, to win the regard of his fellows, and he became in a measure the slave of the regiment; but the more he tried to please the more his burden increased, and the greater were the insults he was compelled to bear from both officers and men. It was so easy to bully this giant, whom they nicknamed Samson, that even the smallest men in the regiment felt at liberty to swear at him or cuff him if necessary.
But at last Samson's good nature seemed to be wearing out. His stock was becoming exhausted, and his comrades forgot that the Bretons for hundreds of years have been successful fighters, and that the blood of contention flows in their veins.
Although the Alpine Corps, as a general thing, contain the largest and strongest men in the French Army, yet the average French soldier may be termed undersized when compared with the military of either England or Germany. There were several physically small men in the regiment, and one of these, like a diminutive gnat, was Samson's worst persecutor. As there was no other man in the regiment whom the gnat could bully, Samson received more than even he could be expected to bear. One day the gnat ordered Samson to bring him a pail of water from the stream, and the big man unhesitatingly obeyed. He spilled some of it coming up the bank, and when he delivered it to the little man, the latter abused him for not bringing the pail full, and as several of the larger soldiers, who had all in their turn made Samson miserable, were standing about, the little man picked up the pail of water and dashed it into Samson's face. It was such a good opportunity for showing off before the big men, who removed their pipes from their mouths and laughed loudly as Samson with his knuckles tried to take the water out of his eyes. Then Samson did an astonishing thing.
"You miserable, little insignificant rat," he cried. "I could crush you, but you are not worth it. But to show you that I am not afraid of any of you, there, and there!"
As he said these two words with emphasis, he struck out from the shoulder, not at the little man, but at the two biggest men in the regiment, and felled them like logs to the ground.
A cry of rage went up from their comrades, but bullies are cowards at heart, and while Samson glared around at them, no one made a move.
The matter was reported to the officer, and Samson was placed under arrest. When the inquiry was held the officer expressed his astonishment at the fact that Samson hit two men who had nothing to do with the insult he had received, while the real culprit had been allowed to go unpunished.
"They deserved it," said Samson, sullenly, "for what they had done before. I could not strike the little man. I should have killed him."
"Silence!" cried the officer. "You must not answer me like that."
"I shall answer you as I like," said Samson, doggedly.
The officer sprang to his feet, with a lithe rattan cane in his hand, and struck the insubordinate soldier twice across the face, each time raising an angry red mark.
Before the guards had time to interfere, Samson sprang upon the officer, lifted him like a child above his head, and dashed him with a sickening crash to the ground, where he lay motionless.
A cry of horror went up from every one present.
"I have had enough," cried Samson, turning to go, but he was met by a bristling hedge of steel. He was like a rat in a trap. He stood defiantly there, a man maddened by oppression, and glared around helplessly.
Whatever might have been his punishment for striking his comrades, there was no doubt now about his fate. The guard-house was a rude hut of logs situated on the banks of the roaring stream. Into this room Samson was flung, bound hand and foot, to await the court-martial next day. The shattered officer, whose sword had broken in pieces under him, slowly revived and was carried to his quarters. A sentry marched up and down all night before the guard-house.
In the morning, when Samson was sent for, the guard-house was found to be empty. The huge Breton had broken his bonds as did Samson of old. He had pushed out a log of wood from the wall, and had squeezed himself through to the bank of the stream. There all trace of him was lost. If he had fallen in, then of course he had sentenced and executed himself, but in the mud near the water were great footprints which no boot but that of Samson could have made; so if he were in the stream it must have been because he threw himself there. The trend of the footprints, however, indicated that he had climbed on the rocks, and there, of course, it was impossible to trace him. The sentries who guarded the pass maintained that no one had gone through during the night, but to make sure several men were sent down the path to overtake the runaway. Even if he reached a town or a village far below, so huge a man could not escape notice. The searchers were instructed to telegraph his description and his crime as soon as they reached a telegraph wire. It was impossible to hide in the valley, and a rapid search speedily convinced the officers that the delinquent was not there.
As the sun rose higher and higher, until it began to shine even on the northward-facing snow fields, a sharp-eyed private reported that he saw a black speck moving high up on the great white slope south of the valley. The officer called for a field-glass, and placing it to his eyes, examined the snow carefully.
"Call out a detachment," he said, "that is Samson on the mountain."
There was a great stir in the camp when the truth became known. Emissaries were sent after the searchers down the pass, calling them to return.
"He thinks to get to Italy," said the officer. "I did not imagine the fool knew so much of geography. We have him now secure enough."
The officer who had been flung over Samson's head was now able to hobble about, and he was exceedingly bitter. Shading his eyes and gazing at the snow, he said--
"A good marksman ought to be able to bring him down."
"There is no need of that," replied his superior. "He cannot escape. We have nothing to do but to wait for him. He will have to come down."
All of which was perfectly true.
A detachment crossed the stream and stacked its arms at the foot of the mountain which Samson was trying to climb. There was a small level place a few yards wide between the bottom of the hill and the bank of the raging stream. On this bit of level ground the soldiers lay in the sun and smoked, while the officers stood in a group and watched the climbing man going steadily upward.
For a short distance up from the plateau there was stunted grass and moss, with dark points of rock protruding from the scant soil. Above that again was a breadth of dirty snow which, now that the sun was strong, sent little trickling streams down to the river. From there to the long ridge of the mountain extended upwards the vast smooth slope of virgin snow, pure and white, sparkling in the strong sunlight as if it had been sprinkled with diamond dust. A black speck against this tremendous field of white, the giant struggled on, and they could see by the glass that he sunk to the knee in the softening snow.
"Now," said the officer, "he is beginning to understand his situation."
Through the glass they saw Samson pause. From below it seemed as if the snow were as smooth as a sloping roof, but even to the naked eye a shadow crossed it near the top. That shadow was a tremendous ridge of overhanging snow more than a hundred feet deep; and Samson now paused as he realised that it was insurmountable. He looked down and undoubtedly saw a part of the regiment waiting for him below. He turned and plodded slowly under the overhanging ridge until he came to the precipice at his left. It was a thousand feet sheer down. He retraced his steps and walked to the similar precipice at the right. Then he came again to the middle of the great T which his footmarks had made on that virgin slope. He sat down in the snow.
No one will ever know what a moment of despair the Breton must have passed through when he realised the hopelessness of his toil.
The officer who was gazing through the glass at him dropped his hand to his side and laughed.
"The nature of the situation," he said, "has at last dawned upon him. It took a long time to get an appreciation of it through his thick Breton skull."
"Let me have the glass a moment," said another. "He has made up his mind about something."
The officer did not realise the full significance of what he saw through the glass. In spite of their conceit, their skulls were thicker than that of the persecuted Breton fisherman.
Samson for a moment turned his face to the north and raised his face towards heaven. Whether it was an appeal to the saints he believed in, or an invocation to the distant ocean he was never more to look upon, who can tell?
After a moment's pause he flung himself headlong down the slope towards the section of the regiment which lounged on the bank of the river. Over and over he rolled, and then in place of the black figure there came downwards a white ball, gathering bulk at every bound.
It was several seconds before the significance of what they were gazing at burst upon officers and men. It came upon them simultaneously, and with it a wild panic of fear. In the still air a low sullen roar arose.
"An avalanche! An avalanche!!" they cried.
The men and officers were hemmed in by the boiling torrent. Some of them plunged in to get to the other side, but the moment the water laid hold of them their heels were whirled into the air, and they disappeared helplessly down the rapids.
Samson was hours going up the mountain, but only seconds coming down. Like an overwhelming wave came the white crest of the avalanche, sweeping officers and men into and over the stream and far across the plateau.
There was one mingled shriek which made itself heard through the sullen roar of the snow, then all was silence. The hemmed-in waters rose high and soon forced its way through the white barrier.
When the remainder of the regiment dug out from the debris the bodies of their comrades they found a fixed look of the wildest terror on every face except one. Samson himself, without an unbroken bone in his body, slept as calmly as if he rested under the blue waters on the coast of Brittany.