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Chapter 43

CHAPTER XLIII [My Poor Sick Friend Disappointed]

Everybody was out-of-doors; everybody was in the principal street of the
village--not on the sidewalks, but all over the street; everybody was
lounging, loafing, chatting, waiting, alert, expectant, interested--for
it was train-time. That is to say, it was diligence-time--the
half-dozen big diligences would soon be arriving from Geneva, and the
village was interested, in many ways, in knowing how many people were
coming and what sort of folk they might be. It was altogether the
livest-looking street we had seen in any village on the continent.

The hotel was by the side of a booming torrent, whose music was loud
and strong; we could not see this torrent, for it was dark, now, but
one could locate it without a light. There was a large enclosed yard in
front of the hotel, and this was filled with groups of villagers waiting
to see the diligences arrive, or to hire themselves to excursionists for
the morrow. A telescope stood in the yard, with its huge barrel canted
up toward the lustrous evening star. The long porch of the hotel was
populous with tourists, who sat in shawls and wraps under the vast
overshadowing bulk of Mont Blanc, and gossiped or meditated.

Never did a mountain seem so close; its big sides seemed at one's very
elbow, and its majestic dome, and the lofty cluster of slender minarets
that were its neighbors, seemed to be almost over one's head. It was
night in the streets, and the lamps were sparkling everywhere; the broad
bases and shoulders of the mountains were in a deep gloom, but their
summits swam in a strange rich glow which was really daylight, and yet
had a mellow something about it which was very different from the hard
white glare of the kind of daylight I was used to. Its radiance was
strong and clear, but at the same time it was singularly soft, and
spiritual, and benignant. No, it was not our harsh, aggressive,
realistic daylight; it seemed properer to an enchanted land--or to

I had seen moonlight and daylight together before, but I had not seen
daylight and black night elbow to elbow before. At least I had not seen
the daylight resting upon an object sufficiently close at hand, before,
to make the contrast startling and at war with nature.

The daylight passed away. Presently the moon rose up behind some of
those sky-piercing fingers or pinnacles of bare rock of which I have
spoken--they were a little to the left of the crest of Mont Blanc,
and right over our heads--but she couldn't manage to climb high enough
toward heaven to get entirely above them. She would show the glittering
arch of her upper third, occasionally, and scrape it along behind the
comblike row; sometimes a pinnacle stood straight up, like a statuette
of ebony, against that glittering white shield, then seemed to glide out
of it by its own volition and power, and become a dim specter, while the
next pinnacle glided into its place and blotted the spotless disk with
the black exclamation-point of its presence. The top of one pinnacle
took the shapely, clean-cut form of a rabbit's head, in the inkiest
silhouette, while it rested against the moon. The unillumined peaks and
minarets, hovering vague and phantom-like above us while the others
were painfully white and strong with snow and moonlight, made a peculiar

But when the moon, having passed the line of pinnacles, was hidden
behind the stupendous white swell of Mont Blanc, the masterpiece of the
evening was flung on the canvas. A rich greenish radiance sprang into
the sky from behind the mountain, and in this same airy shreds and
ribbons of vapor floated about, and being flushed with that strange
tint, went waving to and fro like pale green flames. After a while,
radiating bars--vast broadening fan-shaped shadows--grew up and
stretched away to the zenith from behind the mountain. It was a
spectacle to take one's breath, for the wonder of it, and the sublimity.

Indeed, those mighty bars of alternate light and shadow streaming up
from behind that dark and prodigious form and occupying the half of the
dull and opaque heavens, was the most imposing and impressive marvel I
had ever looked upon. There is no simile for it, for nothing is like
it. If a child had asked me what it was, I should have said, "Humble
yourself, in this presence, it is the glory flowing from the hidden head
of the Creator." One falls shorter of the truth than that, sometimes, in
trying to explain mysteries to the little people. I could have found
out the cause of this awe-compelling miracle by inquiring, for it is not
infrequent at Mont Blanc,--but I did not wish to know. We have not the
reverent feeling for the rainbow that a savage has, because we know how
it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into the matter.

We took a walk down street, a block or two, and a place where four
streets met and the principal shops were clustered, found the groups
of men in the roadway thicker than ever--for this was the Exchange of
Chamonix. These men were in the costumes of guides and porters, and were
there to be hired.

The office of that great personage, the Guide-in-Chief of the Chamonix
Guild of Guides, was near by. This guild is a close corporation, and is
governed by strict laws. There are many excursion routes, some dangerous
and some not, some that can be made safely without a guide, and some
that cannot. The bureau determines these things. Where it decides that a
guide is necessary, you are forbidden to go without one. Neither are you
allowed to be a victim of extortion: the law states what you are to pay.
The guides serve in rotation; you cannot select the man who is to take
your life into his hands, you must take the worst in the lot, if it is
his turn. A guide's fee ranges all the way up from a half-dollar (for
some trifling excursion of a few rods) to twenty dollars, according to
the distance traversed and the nature of the ground. A guide's fee
for taking a person to the summit of Mont Blanc and back, is twenty
dollars--and he earns it. The time employed is usually three days, and
there is enough early rising in it to make a man far more "healthy and
wealthy and wise" than any one man has any right to be. The porter's
fee for the same trip is ten dollars. Several fools--no, I mean several
tourists--usually go together, and divide up the expense, and thus make
it light; for if only one f--tourist, I mean--went, he would have to
have several guides and porters, and that would make the matter costly.

We went into the Chief's office. There were maps of mountains on the
walls; also one or two lithographs of celebrated guides, and a portrait
of the scientist De Saussure.

In glass cases were some labeled fragments of boots and batons, and
other suggestive relics and remembrances of casualties on Mount Blanc.
In a book was a record of all the ascents which have ever been made,
beginning with Nos. 1 and 2--being those of Jacques Balmat and De
Saussure, in 1787, and ending with No. 685, which wasn't cold yet. In
fact No. 685 was standing by the official table waiting to receive the
precious official diploma which should prove to his German household and
to his descendants that he had once been indiscreet enough to climb to
the top of Mont Blanc. He looked very happy when he got his document; in
fact, he spoke up and said he WAS happy.

I tried to buy a diploma for an invalid friend at home who had never
traveled, and whose desire all his life has been to ascend Mont Blanc,
but the Guide-in-Chief rather insolently refused to sell me one. I was
very much offended. I said I did not propose to be discriminated against
on the account of my nationality; that he had just sold a diploma to
this German gentleman, and my money was a good as his; I would see to
it that he couldn't keep his shop for Germans and deny his produce to
Americans; I would have his license taken away from him at the dropping
of a handkerchief; if France refused to break him, I would make an
international matter of it and bring on a war; the soil should be
drenched with blood; and not only that, but I would set up an opposition
show and sell diplomas at half price.

For two cents I would have done these things, too; but nobody offered me
two cents. I tried to move that German's feelings, but it could not be
done; he would not give me his diploma, neither would he sell it to me.
I TOLD him my friend was sick and could not come himself, but he said
he did not care a VERDAMMTES PFENNIG, he wanted his diploma for
himself--did I suppose he was going to risk his neck for that thing and
then give it to a sick stranger? Indeed he wouldn't, so he wouldn't. I
resolved, then, that I would do all I could to injure Mont Blanc.

In the record-book was a list of all the fatal accidents which happened
on the mountain. It began with the one in 1820 when the Russian Dr.
Hamel's three guides were lost in a crevice of the glacier, and it
recorded the delivery of the remains in the valley by the slow-moving
glacier forty-one years later. The latest catastrophe bore the date

We stepped out and roved about the village awhile. In front of the
little church was a monument to the memory of the bold guide Jacques
Balmat, the first man who ever stood upon the summit of Mont Blanc. He
made that wild trip solitary and alone. He accomplished the ascent
a number of times afterward. A stretch of nearly half a century lay
between his first ascent and his last one. At the ripe old age of
seventy-two he was climbing around a corner of a lofty precipice of the
Pic du Midi--nobody with him--when he slipped and fell. So he died in
the harness.

He had grown very avaricious in his old age, and used to go off
stealthily to hunt for non-existent and impossible gold among those
perilous peaks and precipices. He was on a quest of that kind when he
lost his life. There was a statue to him, and another to De Saussure, in
the hall of our hotel, and a metal plate on the door of a room upstairs
bore an inscription to the effect that that room had been occupied
by Albert Smith. Balmat and De Saussure discovered Mont Blanc--so to
speak--but it was Smith who made it a paying property. His articles in
BLACKWOOD and his lectures on Mont Blanc in London advertised it and
made people as anxious to see it as if it owed them money.

As we strolled along the road we looked up and saw a red signal-light
glowing in the darkness of the mountainside. It seemed but a trifling
way up--perhaps a hundred yards, a climb of ten minutes. It was a lucky
piece of sagacity in us that we concluded to stop a man whom we met and
get a light for our pipes from him instead of continuing the climb to
that lantern to get a light, as had been our purpose. The man said that
that lantern was on the Grands Mulets, some sixty-five hundred feet
above the valley! I know by our Riffelberg experience, that it would
have taken us a good part of a week to go up there. I would sooner not
smoke at all, than take all that trouble for a light.

Even in the daytime the foreshadowing effect of this mountain's close
proximity creates curious deceptions. For instance, one sees with the
naked eye a cabin up there beside the glacier, and a little above and
beyond he sees the spot where that red light was located; he thinks he
could throw a stone from the one place to the other. But he couldn't,
for the difference between the two altitudes is more than three thousand
feet. It looks impossible, from below, that this can be true, but it is
true, nevertheless.

While strolling around, we kept the run of the moon all the time, and we
still kept an eye on her after we got back to the hotel portico. I had
a theory that the gravitation of refraction, being subsidiary to
atmospheric compensation, the refrangibility of the earth's surface
would emphasize this effect in regions where great mountain ranges
occur, and possibly so even-handed impact the odic and idyllic forces
together, the one upon the other, as to prevent the moon from rising
higher than 12,200 feet above sea-level. This daring theory had been
received with frantic scorn by some of my fellow-scientists, and with
an eager silence by others. Among the former I may mention Prof. H----y;
and among the latter Prof. T----l. Such is professional jealousy; a
scientist will never show any kindness for a theory which he did not
start himself. There is no feeling of brotherhood among these people.
Indeed, they always resent it when I call them brother. To show how far
their ungenerosity can carry them, I will state that I offered to let
Prof. H----y publish my great theory as his own discovery; I even begged
him to do it; I even proposed to print it myself as his theory. Instead
of thanking me, he said that if I tried to fasten that theory on him he
would sue me for slander. I was going to offer it to Mr. Darwin, whom
I understood to be a man without prejudices, but it occurred to me
that perhaps he would not be interested in it since it did not concern

But I am glad now, that I was forced to father my intrepid theory
myself, for, on the night of which I am writing, it was triumphantly
justified and established. Mont Blanc is nearly sixteen thousand feet
high; he hid the moon utterly; near him is a peak which is 12,216 feet
high; the moon slid along behind the pinnacles, and when she approached
that one I watched her with intense interest, for my reputation as a
scientist must stand or fall by its decision. I cannot describe the
emotions which surged like tidal waves through my breast when I saw the
moon glide behind that lofty needle and pass it by without exposing more
than two feet four inches of her upper rim above it; I was secure, then.
I knew she could rise no higher, and I was right. She sailed behind all
the peaks and never succeeded in hoisting her disk above a single one of

While the moon was behind one of those sharp fingers, its shadow was
flung athwart the vacant heavens--a long, slanting, clean-cut, dark
ray--with a streaming and energetic suggestion of FORCE about it, such
as the ascending jet of water from a powerful fire-engine affords. It
was curious to see a good strong shadow of an earthly object cast upon
so intangible a field as the atmosphere.

We went to bed, at last, and went quickly to sleep, but I woke up,
after about three hours, with throbbing temples, and a head which was
physically sore, outside and in. I was dazed, dreamy, wretched, seedy,
unrefreshed. I recognized the occasion of all this: it was that torrent.
In the mountain villages of Switzerland, and along the roads, one has
always the roar of the torrent in his ears. He imagines it is music, and
he thinks poetic things about it; he lies in his comfortable bed and is
lulled to sleep by it. But by and by he begins to notice that his
head is very sore--he cannot account for it; in solitudes where the
profoundest silence reigns, he notices a sullen, distant, continuous
roar in his ears, which is like what he would experience if he had
sea-shells pressed against them--he cannot account for it; he is drowsy
and absent-minded; there is no tenacity to his mind, he cannot keep hold
of a thought and follow it out; if he sits down to write, his vocabulary
is empty, no suitable words will come, he forgets what he started to do,
and remains there, pen in hand, head tilted up, eyes closed, listening
painfully to the muffled roar of a distant train in his ears; in his
soundest sleep the strain continues, he goes on listening, always
listening intently, anxiously, and wakes at last, harassed, irritable,
unrefreshed. He cannot manage to account for these things. Day after day
he feels as if he had spent his nights in a sleeping-car. It actually
takes him weeks to find out that it is those persecuting torrents that
have been making all the mischief. It is time for him to get out of
Switzerland, then, for as soon as he has discovered the cause, the
misery is magnified several fold. The roar of the torrent is maddening,
then, for his imagination is assisting; the physical pain it inflicts
is exquisite. When he finds he is approaching one of those streams, his
dread is so lively that he is disposed to fly the track and avoid the
implacable foe.

Eight or nine months after the distress of the torrents had departed
from me, the roar and thunder of the streets of Paris brought it all
back again. I moved to the sixth story of the hotel to hunt for peace.
About midnight the noises dulled away, and I was sinking to sleep,
when I heard a new and curious sound; I listened: evidently some joyous
lunatic was softly dancing a "double shuffle" in the room over my head.
I had to wait for him to get through, of course. Five long, long minutes
he smoothly shuffled away--a pause followed, then something fell with a
thump on the floor. I said to myself "There--he is pulling off his boots
--thank heavens he is done." Another slight pause--he went to shuffling
again! I said to myself, "Is he trying to see what he can do with only
one boot on?" Presently came another pause and another thump on the
floor. I said "Good, he has pulled off his other boot--NOW he is done."
But he wasn't. The next moment he was shuffling again. I said, "Confound
him, he is at it in his slippers!" After a little came that same old
pause, and right after it that thump on the floor once more. I said,
"Hang him, he had on TWO pair of boots!" For an hour that magician
went on shuffling and pulling off boots till he had shed as many as
twenty-five pair, and I was hovering on the verge of lunacy. I got
my gun and stole up there. The fellow was in the midst of an acre of
sprawling boots, and he had a boot in his hand, shuffling it--no, I mean
POLISHING it. The mystery was explained. He hadn't been dancing. He was
the "Boots" of the hotel, and was attending to business.

Mark Twain