LOST!


THERE was something unusual in the village street that morning as I made my way to the chalet post-office to send a telegram, but the mind was only vaguely aware of it. A familiar detail seemed lacking; a difference had crept in. One noticed it no more than that. Sunshine flooded the valley, the forests hung in purple shadow to the west, far overhead the snow shone dazzling against the turquoise blue, and the air was filled with the roar of falling water. Girls in yellow jumpers were going down to the tennis courts, tourists starting on their expeditions, mules clattering on the cobbles, and the priest went by, his face, as always, grave. All seemed as usual: the difference did not disclose itself. My mind, perhaps, was too preoccupied composing a complicated telegram in the fewest possible words to think about it. It was on my way back that I suddenly realised what was wrong: the familiar groups of guides, waiting for employment, were omitted from the picture. Something had happened.

A high Alpine climbing village is a sensitive organism, whose collective life responds swiftly to the least change—a new arrival, a departure, a summit conquered, but, above all, an accident. The news runs through it like a wind. On the way back to my friend's chalet the priest passed me again. "Yes, a man is lost," he said, his face graver than before. "He's been out all night, the search-parties have left."

He gave a few details, then hurried on, but in the twinkling of an eye the note of that brilliant, even gorgeous, morning had changed completely. The shadow of disaster dimmed the sunshine, the pleasant roar of falling water become ominous, the great peaks wore a forbidding air. Somewhere among their awful loneliness a man was lost. The thing all dread had happened. It was strange, at this early hour, how the undercurrent of news flashed so swiftly along the sunny street, touching some and missing others. To those who merely played tennis, danced, and went for walks, it meant less; to those who climbed and knew the wild places where the victim might be lying, it was poignant. One resented these careless, happy tourists, picking flowers, chasing butterflies, playing tennis in light-hearted safety. Through the mind flashed vivid pictures of the cold, dreadful heights, of icy slopes, of dizzy ledges, of perilous corners above an abyss of emptiness. One turned, rather, to the peasants who stood about in groups, some with telescopes, all with grave faces and sympathetic questions. A man was lost. He had been out alone all night. There had been a cold wind but a clear sky. He was still clinging, perhaps, to some ledge, unable to get up or down, shouting to the emptiness . . . perhaps lying injured on some desolate pitch of rock . . . perhaps motionless.

My host, an old resident of the village, experienced climber as well, had all the available facts at his fingertips when I got back. He was ready to start too. We chose a route the other parties had not taken, and on the way up he gave me details of what was known. We took with us Zeiss glasses, food, brandy, extra ropes. It was a gloomy, mournful expedition. We went fast, much too fast for climbers; the feeling of hurry made it impossible to take it easy.

An odd thing was that, although the man had broken all the rules, no one had used a word of blame. He was not a climber, but one of those vigorous Englishmen of middle age who enjoy "a scramble." He wore nailed boots and carried an iron-shod alpenstock. He was married, his wife and children at Como, where he was to join them in a few days. He was a botanist. He took with him a knapsack with food and a thermos of tea. He had left his hotel at 2 o'clock on the previous afternoon, but he had not told anyone exactly where he was going. His direction was only vaguely known. He had not returned for dinner. He had been out twenty hours. Search parties had started at midnight; others had left at dawn. Three shots—echo carries the sound for miles—was to be the signal that he had been found.

We used the "botany" as our guide taking—a precipitous trail to a region of desolate rocks where rare saxifrages grew. Every inch of the ground was known to both of us. We climbed in silence, the pace leaving no breath for words, but the glasses were used constantly, and occasionally there was a pause to discuss direction. Such a man, it was certain, would not choose obviously dangerous places, although his enthusiasm for some rare plant must remain an incalculable factor always. The probability seemed that his search had led him to some point whence descent became suddenly impossible. A common occurrence this, for to get up is frequently easier than to get down again. He had clung on through the darkness, beneath the stars, till his strength failed and exhaustion loosened his grip. Or, perhaps, on some steep pitch where ordinary care meant safety, he had slipped. There were ugly drops to the south in plenty. Anyhow, it was not the obviously dangerous places we need examine. The few peasants we met—all knew of the possible disaster—gave little help; some had seen a solitary figure, others had not; descriptions varied; there was nothing reliable to guide us. We hurried as the day wore on. Up by the torrent, through deep forest, past waterfalls, across bright green upper pastures, where a million flowers shone, scanning every couloir, examining every ledge where a man might venture, and especially the slope of shale at its foot. It was a familiar trail to both of us. The music of the cowbells filled the air. The gentians blazed. The snowfields sparkled far overhead, and the gay tourist village, except as the place where he had started 24 hours ago now, was quite forgotten. It was towards afternoon that I first noticed we began to speak of it instead of he. We were well up above the world by now, in the heart of the great heights, not far from the snow, the huge mountains coming more and more into their own. What we called the "saxifrage rocks" lay an hour below us. The sky wore a darker blue; the wind, creeping down from the glacier, had a nip in it; the flowers changed; and the immense desolation was emptied of any moving figures but our own. An occasional marmot whistled before diving into its hole, a bird flitted to another boulder, a white butterfly danced past, a stray fly buzzed and vanished. But that was all. Already the Oberland giants were peering at us from behind the ridges we had topped. The silence of the big mountains, their grandeur, their loneliness, their awe stole over us. The change one had noticed in the sunny village street below became increasingly manifest.

It was this change, though we did not speak of it at the time, that impressed us both, proving how the mood, the attitude of mind, determine selection. The familiar beauty retreated, letting terror in. The scenes we knew so well, had so often enjoyed with happy wonder, now wore another guise. The majesty turned awful, the splendour cruel, the indifference to human life stood out. This new significance in "scenery" we had admired countless times, at dawn, in the moonlight, in the fierce midday sunshine, became ever more apparent. The whole meaning of the high mountains altered, light and shade falling in unaccustomed places. Imaginatively, one became aware of the conspiracy that exists among these great inanimate peaks and precipices, first to entice, then to enforce the penalty for the least mistake. Every detail of crag and summit, every shoulder, col, and dangerous slope became invested with a dim sense of personality that clothed another type of life. And this life, as the shadows lengthened and darkness grew upon the eastern side, became for us, not merely indifferent, but definitely hostile. A hint of the monstrous crept into the lonely grandeur. These stupendous Powers, having claimed their victim, now tried to hide him. Other Consciousnesses now watched our puny efforts at discovery, peering down into our minds that still hoped to save. The sense of being watched was present. The weight of wonder, of admiration, of sympathetic tenderness certainly, was shifted from the mountains to the man. Awe was too strong for beauty any more. The eye searched, not for the marvel of form and colour upon these terrible heights, not for the mystery of their inaccessible and dreadful loneliness, but strained ever for a small, significant outline, lying broken among huge, misshapen boulders, the outline of a man, possibly of little importance beyond an immediate family circle, playing no big role in life that mattered, but—a human being, a member of the Race, a soul who, adventuring carelessly against too heavy odds, had lost.

Never again, for us, could these peaks and precipices, these flowers, snowfields, streams, seem quite the same. Into their collective being we called "scenery" a new ingredient had entered permanently so that their wonder must ever hereafter hold too much of respect for our former loving admiration. We should pass the slope of shale in silence, glance upwards at the treacherous ledge with a sigh, a shudder. Even on the brightest day, spring flowers carpeting our approach, this must be so. Nor would this emotion bear much relation to the wooden cross the peasants erect with reverence. The spot would be haunted by the shadow of an adventure against awful odds, but an adventure whose precise details none knew, because those lips were silent which alone could tell.

Half on the shale, half on a patch of turf where gentians actually brushed one cheek, we found him—motionless. Just before the darkness came the glasses picked out the significant outline. The unnatural shape betrayed it among the grim boulders. My friend merely pointed in silence, his face a little paler beneath the sunburn, as he held out the binoculars. The drop was perhaps one hundred feet, but death must have been instantaneous, for the neck was broken. The stick lay fifty yards away. In one hand a little saxifrage was still clutched tightly.