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Chapter 37


CHAPTER XXXVII [Our Imposing Column Starts Upward]

After I had finished my readings, I was no longer myself; I was tranced,
uplifted, intoxicated, by the almost incredible perils and adventures
I had been following my authors through, and the triumphs I had been
sharing with them. I sat silent some time, then turned to Harris and
said:

"My mind is made up."

Something in my tone struck him: and when he glanced at my eye and
read what was written there, his face paled perceptibly. He hesitated a
moment, then said:

"Speak."

I answered, with perfect calmness:

"I will ascend the Riffelberg."

If I had shot my poor friend he could not have fallen from his chair
more suddenly. If I had been his father he could not have pleaded harder
to get me to give up my purpose. But I turned a deaf ear to all he said.
When he perceived at last that nothing could alter my determination, he
ceased to urge, and for a while the deep silence was broken only by his
sobs. I sat in marble resolution, with my eyes fixed upon vacancy, for
in spirit I was already wrestling with the perils of the mountains, and
my friend sat gazing at me in adoring admiration through his tears.
At last he threw himself upon me in a loving embrace and exclaimed in
broken tones:

"Your Harris will never desert you. We will die together."

I cheered the noble fellow with praises, and soon his fears were
forgotten and he was eager for the adventure. He wanted to summon the
guides at once and leave at two in the morning, as he supposed the
custom was; but I explained that nobody was looking at that hour; and
that the start in the dark was not usually made from the village but
from the first night's resting-place on the mountain side. I said we
would leave the village at 3 or 4 P.M. on the morrow; meantime he could
notify the guides, and also let the public know of the attempt which we
proposed to make.

I went to bed, but not to sleep. No man can sleep when he is about to
undertake one of these Alpine exploits. I tossed feverishly all night
long, and was glad enough when I heard the clock strike half past eleven
and knew it was time to get up for dinner. I rose, jaded and rusty, and
went to the noon meal, where I found myself the center of interest and
curiosity; for the news was already abroad. It is not easy to eat calmly
when you are a lion; but it is very pleasant, nevertheless.

As usual, at Zermatt, when a great ascent is about to be undertaken,
everybody, native and foreign, laid aside his own projects and took up
a good position to observe the start. The expedition consisted of 198
persons, including the mules; or 205, including the cows. As follows:

CHIEFS OF SERVICE SUBORDINATES

Myself
1 Veterinary Surgeon Mr. Harris
1 Butler
17 Guides
12 Waiters
4 Surgeons
1 Footman
1 Geologist
1 Barber
1 Botanist
1 Head Cook
3 Chaplains
9 Assistants
15 Barkeepers
1 Confectionery Artist
1 Latinist


TRANSPORTATION, ETC.

27 Porters
3 Coarse Washers and Ironers
1 Fine ditto
44 Mules
44 Muleteers
7 Cows
2 Milkers

Total, 154 men, 51 animals. Grand Total, 205.


RATIONS, ETC. APPARATUS

16 Cases Hams
25 Spring Mattresses
2 Hair ditto
Bedding for same
2 Barrels Flour
22 Barrels Whiskey
1 Barrel Sugar
2 Mosquito-nets
1 Keg Lemons
29 Tents
2,000 Cigars
Scientific Instruments
1 Barrel Pies
97 Ice-axes
1 Ton of Pemmican
5 Cases Dynamite
143 Pair Crutches
7 Cans Nitroglycerin
2 Barrels Arnica
22 40-foot Ladders
1 Bale of Lint
2 Miles of Rope
27 Kegs Paregoric
154 Umbrellas

It was full four o'clock in the afternoon before my cavalcade was
entirely ready. At that hour it began to move. In point of numbers and
spectacular effect, it was the most imposing expedition that had ever
marched from Zermatt.

I commanded the chief guide to arrange the men and animals in single
file, twelve feet apart, and lash them all together on a strong rope. He
objected that the first two miles was a dead level, with plenty of room,
and that the rope was never used except in very dangerous places. But
I would not listen to that. My reading had taught me that many serious
accidents had happened in the Alps simply from not having the people
tied up soon enough; I was not going to add one to the list. The guide
then obeyed my order.

When the procession stood at ease, roped together, and ready to move, I
never saw a finer sight. It was 3,122 feet long--over half a mile; every
man and me was on foot, and had on his green veil and his blue goggles,
and his white rag around his hat, and his coil of rope over one shoulder
and under the other, and his ice-ax in his belt, and carried his
alpenstock in his left hand, his umbrella (closed) in his right, and his
crutches slung at his back. The burdens of the pack-mules and the horns
of the cows were decked with the Edelweiss and the Alpine rose.

I and my agent were the only persons mounted. We were in the post of
danger in the extreme rear, and tied securely to five guides apiece. Our
armor-bearers carried our ice-axes, alpenstocks, and other implements
for us. We were mounted upon very small donkeys, as a measure of safety;
in time of peril we could straighten our legs and stand up, and let
the donkey walk from under. Still, I cannot recommend this sort of
animal--at least for excursions of mere pleasure--because his
ears interrupt the view. I and my agent possessed the regulation
mountaineering costumes, but concluded to leave them behind. Out of
respect for the great numbers of tourists of both sexes who would be
assembled in front of the hotels to see us pass, and also out of respect
for the many tourists whom we expected to encounter on our expedition,
we decided to make the ascent in evening dress.

We watered the caravan at the cold stream which rushes down a trough
near the end of the village, and soon afterward left the haunts of
civilization behind us. About half past five o'clock we arrived at a
bridge which spans the Visp, and after throwing over a detachment to see
if it was safe, the caravan crossed without accident. The way now led,
by a gentle ascent, carpeted with fresh green grass, to the church at
Winkelmatten. Without stopping to examine this edifice, I executed
a flank movement to the right and crossed the bridge over the
Findelenbach, after first testing its strength. Here I deployed to the
right again, and presently entered an inviting stretch of meadowland
which was unoccupied save by a couple of deserted huts toward the
furthest extremity. These meadows offered an excellent camping-place.
We pitched our tents, supped, established a proper grade, recorded the
events of the day, and then went to bed.

We rose at two in the morning and dressed by candle-light. It was a
dismal and chilly business. A few stars were shining, but the general
heavens were overcast, and the great shaft of the Matterhorn was draped
in a cable pall of clouds. The chief guide advised a delay; he said he
feared it was going to rain. We waited until nine o'clock, and then got
away in tolerably clear weather.

Our course led up some terrific steeps, densely wooded with larches and
cedars, and traversed by paths which the rains had guttered and which
were obstructed by loose stones. To add to the danger and inconvenience,
we were constantly meeting returning tourists on foot and horseback, and
as constantly being crowded and battered by ascending tourists who were
in a hurry and wanted to get by.

Our troubles thickened. About the middle of the afternoon the seventeen
guides called a halt and held a consultation. After consulting an hour
they said their first suspicion remained intact--that is to say, they
believed they were lost. I asked if they did not KNOW it? No, they said,
they COULDN'T absolutely know whether they were lost or not, because
none of them had ever been in that part of the country before. They had
a strong instinct that they were lost, but they had no proofs--except
that they did not know where they were. They had met no tourists for
some time, and they considered that a suspicious sign.

Plainly we were in an ugly fix. The guides were naturally unwilling to
go alone and seek a way out of the difficulty; so we all went together.
For better security we moved slow and cautiously, for the forest was
very dense. We did not move up the mountain, but around it, hoping to
strike across the old trail. Toward nightfall, when we were about tired
out, we came up against a rock as big as a cottage. This barrier took
all the remaining spirit out of the men, and a panic of fear and despair
ensued. They moaned and wept, and said they should never see their homes
and their dear ones again. Then they began to upbraid me for bringing
them upon this fatal expedition. Some even muttered threats against me.

Clearly it was no time to show weakness. So I made a speech in which I
said that other Alp-climbers had been in as perilous a position as this,
and yet by courage and perseverance had escaped. I promised to stand
by them, I promised to rescue them. I closed by saying we had plenty
of provisions to maintain us for quite a siege--and did they suppose
Zermatt would allow half a mile of men and mules to mysteriously
disappear during any considerable time, right above their noses, and
make no inquiries? No, Zermatt would send out searching-expeditions and
we should be saved.

This speech had a great effect. The men pitched the tents with some
little show of cheerfulness, and we were snugly under cover when the
night shut down. I now reaped the reward of my wisdom in providing one
article which is not mentioned in any book of Alpine adventure but this.
I refer to the paregoric. But for that beneficent drug, would have not
one of those men slept a moment during that fearful night. But for that
gentle persuader they must have tossed, unsoothed, the night through;
for the whiskey was for me. Yes, they would have risen in the morning
unfitted for their heavy task. As it was, everybody slept but my agent
and me--only we and the barkeepers. I would not permit myself to sleep
at such a time. I considered myself responsible for all those lives. I
meant to be on hand and ready, in case of avalanches up there, but I did
not know it then.

We watched the weather all through that awful night, and kept an eye on
the barometer, to be prepared for the least change. There was not the
slightest change recorded by the instrument, during the whole time.
Words cannot describe the comfort that that friendly, hopeful, steadfast
thing was to me in that season of trouble. It was a defective barometer,
and had no hand but the stationary brass pointer, but I did not know
that until afterward. If I should be in such a situation again, I should
not wish for any barometer but that one.

All hands rose at two in the morning and took breakfast, and as soon as
it was light we roped ourselves together and went at that rock. For some
time we tried the hook-rope and other means of scaling it, but without
success--that is, without perfect success. The hook caught once, and
Harris started up it hand over hand, but the hold broke and if there
had not happened to be a chaplain sitting underneath at the time, Harris
would certainly have been crippled. As it was, it was the chaplain. He
took to his crutches, and I ordered the hook-rope to be laid aside. It
was too dangerous an implement where so many people are standing around.

We were puzzled for a while; then somebody thought of the ladders.
One of these was leaned against the rock, and the men went up it tied
together in couples. Another ladder was sent up for use in descending.
At the end of half an hour everybody was over, and that rock was
conquered. We gave our first grand shout of triumph. But the joy was
short-lived, for somebody asked how we were going to get the animals
over.

This was a serious difficulty; in fact, it was an impossibility.
The courage of the men began to waver immediately; once more we were
threatened with a panic. But when the danger was most imminent, we were
saved in a mysterious way. A mule which had attracted attention from the
beginning by its disposition to experiment, tried to eat a five-pound
can of nitroglycerin. This happened right alongside the rock. The
explosion threw us all to the ground, and covered us with dirt and
debris; it frightened us extremely, too, for the crash it made was
deafening, and the violence of the shock made the ground tremble.
However, we were grateful, for the rock was gone. Its place was occupied
by a new cellar, about thirty feet across, by fifteen feet deep. The
explosion was heard as far as Zermatt; and an hour and a half afterward,
many citizens of that town were knocked down and quite seriously injured
by descending portions of mule meat, frozen solid. This shows, better
than any estimate in figures, how high the experimenter went.

We had nothing to do, now, but bridge the cellar and proceed on our way.
With a cheer the men went at their work. I attended to the engineering,
myself. I appointed a strong detail to cut down trees with ice-axes and
trim them for piers to support the bridge. This was a slow business, for
ice-axes are not good to cut wood with. I caused my piers to be firmly
set up in ranks in the cellar, and upon them I laid six of my forty-foot
ladders, side by side, and laid six more on top of them. Upon this
bridge I caused a bed of boughs to be spread, and on top of the boughs
a bed of earth six inches deep. I stretched ropes upon either side to
serve as railings, and then my bridge was complete. A train of elephants
could have crossed it in safety and comfort. By nightfall the caravan
was on the other side and the ladders were taken up.

Next morning we went on in good spirits for a while, though our way
was slow and difficult, by reason of the steep and rocky nature of the
ground and the thickness of the forest; but at last a dull despondency
crept into the men's faces and it was apparent that not only they, but
even the guides, were now convinced that we were lost. The fact that we
still met no tourists was a circumstance that was but too significant.
Another thing seemed to suggest that we were not only lost, but very
badly lost; for there must surely be searching-parties on the road
before this time, yet we had seen no sign of them.

Demoralization was spreading; something must be done, and done quickly,
too. Fortunately, I am not unfertile in expedients. I contrived one
now which commended itself to all, for it promised well. I took
three-quarters of a mile of rope and fastened one end of it around the
waist of a guide, and told him to go find the road, while the caravan
waited. I instructed him to guide himself back by the rope, in case of
failure; in case of success, he was to give the rope a series of violent
jerks, whereupon the Expedition would go to him at once. He departed,
and in two minutes had disappeared among the trees. I payed out the rope
myself, while everybody watched the crawling thing with eager eyes.
The rope crept away quite slowly, at times, at other times with some
briskness. Twice or thrice we seemed to get the signal, and a shout was
just ready to break from the men's lips when they perceived it was a
false alarm. But at last, when over half a mile of rope had slidden
away, it stopped gliding and stood absolutely still--one minute--two
minutes--three--while we held our breath and watched.

Was the guide resting? Was he scanning the country from some high point?
Was he inquiring of a chance mountaineer? Stop,--had he fainted from
excess of fatigue and anxiety?

This thought gave us a shock. I was in the very first act of detailing
an Expedition to succor him, when the cord was assailed with a series of
such frantic jerks that I could hardly keep hold of it. The huzza that
went up, then, was good to hear. "Saved! saved!" was the word that rang
out, all down the long rank of the caravan.

We rose up and started at once. We found the route to be good enough
for a while, but it began to grow difficult, by and by, and this feature
steadily increased. When we judged we had gone half a mile, we momently
expected to see the guide; but no, he was not visible anywhere; neither
was he waiting, for the rope was still moving, consequently he was
doing the same. This argued that he had not found the road, yet, but
was marching to it with some peasant. There was nothing for us to do
but plod along--and this we did. At the end of three hours we were
still plodding. This was not only mysterious, but exasperating. And very
fatiguing, too; for we had tried hard, along at first, to catch up with
the guide, but had only fagged ourselves, in vain; for although he was
traveling slowly he was yet able to go faster than the hampered caravan
over such ground.

At three in the afternoon we were nearly dead with exhaustion--and still
the rope was slowly gliding out. The murmurs against the guide had been
growing steadily, and at last they were become loud and savage. A mutiny
ensued. The men refused to proceed. They declared that we had been
traveling over and over the same ground all day, in a kind of circle.
They demanded that our end of the rope be made fast to a tree, so as to
halt the guide until we could overtake him and kill him. This was not an
unreasonable requirement, so I gave the order.

As soon as the rope was tied, the Expedition moved forward with that
alacrity which the thirst for vengeance usually inspires. But after a
tiresome march of almost half a mile, we came to a hill covered thick
with a crumbly rubbish of stones, and so steep that no man of us all
was now in a condition to climb it. Every attempt failed, and ended in
crippling somebody. Within twenty minutes I had five men on crutches.
Whenever a climber tried to assist himself by the rope, it yielded and
let him tumble backward. The frequency of this result suggested an idea
to me. I ordered the caravan to 'bout face and form in marching order; I
then made the tow-rope fast to the rear mule, and gave the command:

"Mark time--by the right flank--forward--march!"

The procession began to move, to the impressive strains of a
battle-chant, and I said to myself, "Now, if the rope don't break I
judge THIS will fetch that guide into the camp." I watched the rope
gliding down the hill, and presently when I was all fixed for triumph
I was confronted by a bitter disappointment; there was no guide tied to
the rope, it was only a very indignant old black ram. The fury of the
baffled Expedition exceeded all bounds. They even wanted to wreak their
unreasoning vengeance on this innocent dumb brute. But I stood between
them and their prey, menaced by a bristling wall of ice-axes and
alpenstocks, and proclaimed that there was but one road to this murder,
and it was directly over my corpse. Even as I spoke I saw that my doom
was sealed, except a miracle supervened to divert these madmen from
their fell purpose. I see the sickening wall of weapons now; I see that
advancing host as I saw it then, I see the hate in those cruel eyes; I
remember how I drooped my head upon my breast, I feel again the
sudden earthquake shock in my rear, administered by the very ram I was
sacrificing myself to save; I hear once more the typhoon of laughter
that burst from the assaulting column as I clove it from van to rear
like a Sepoy shot from a Rodman gun.

I was saved. Yes, I was saved, and by the merciful instinct of
ingratitude which nature had planted in the breast of that treacherous
beast. The grace which eloquence had failed to work in those men's
hearts, had been wrought by a laugh. The ram was set free and my life
was spared.

We lived to find out that that guide had deserted us as soon as he had
placed a half-mile between himself and us. To avert suspicion, he had
judged it best that the line should continue to move; so he caught that
ram, and at the time that he was sitting on it making the rope fast to
it, we were imagining that he was lying in a swoon, overcome by fatigue
and distress. When he allowed the ram to get up it fell to plunging
around, trying to rid itself of the rope, and this was the signal which
we had risen up with glad shouts to obey. We had followed this ram round
and round in a circle all day--a thing which was proven by the discovery
that we had watered the Expedition seven times at one and same spring in
seven hours. As expert a woodman as I am, I had somehow failed to notice
this until my attention was called to it by a hog. This hog was always
wallowing there, and as he was the only hog we saw, his frequent
repetition, together with his unvarying similarity to himself, finally
caused me to reflect that he must be the same hog, and this led me to
the deduction that this must be the same spring, also--which indeed it
was.

I made a note of this curious thing, as showing in a striking manner the
relative difference between glacial action and the action of the hog.
It is now a well-established fact that glaciers move; I consider that
my observations go to show, with equal conclusiveness, that a hog in a
spring does not move. I shall be glad to receive the opinions of other
observers upon this point.

To return, for an explanatory moment, to that guide, and then I shall be
done with him. After leaving the ram tied to the rope, he had wandered
at large a while, and then happened to run across a cow. Judging that a
cow would naturally know more than a guide, he took her by the tail,
and the result justified his judgment. She nibbled her leisurely way
downhill till it was near milking-time, then she struck for home and
towed him into Zermatt.

Mark Twain