THE FALLING GLASS
THE preparations were so interesting and suggestive that they almost compensated for the temporary loss of our expedition. For three days the calm and cloudless sky pretended that bad weather had left the world for ever. This sunny peace, this heaven without a stain, surely must always be. Our peak ran sharp and still into the spotless blue, looking as though it never could be otherwise. Its serene majesty seemed unassailable by any troubling thing, by weather least of all. Then, just when our security was greatest and we had resolved to start next day at dawn, my companion came in to supper, with the ominous remark: "The glass has begun to fall a bit." This, for us, was the beginning of the change, the first we knew of it; in reality, of course, the actual beginning lay leagues away—many leagues and many hours—in Siberia or Norway, far out on the Atlantic or between the Sahara and the Mediterranean. The glass falling in our little mountain valley was in reply to changes there. And this first hint of trouble communicated itself instantly to ourselves; it might be nothing or it might be grave. There was menace in it, and our sense of security was shaken, for the hearts of climbing men lie close enough to Nature; we were aware of resistance, even of possible attack. That tremor of the sensitive mercury was a presage of something coming; at any rate, of something trying to come. In spite of the depression, however, the warning brought a thrill of pleasure with it; the instinct of self-protection stirred; it woke that adorable element in life—resistance against a hostile power that could not be trifled with, certainly not ignored. Somewhere, somehow, it was known that we had planned our great attack at dawn, and so a whisper travelled down from the enormous heights: "Beware! The enemy is on the move!" All this, and more, lay in the casual phrase: "The glass is falling."
Side by side with a natural annoyance there was this stimulus as well. For the beginnings of things are always very wonderful; alteration of what has been before, a new direction, purpose and independence, all these are involved in every true beginning. There is anticipation and surprise, promise of novelty, too; something is going to happen; it may be something quite unprecedented. Beginnings, being in the nature of creation, are beyond language marvellous: the beginning of a day or of a night; of anger, when a rising temperature and the hasting [sic] run of blood betray in us the lurking savage who kills naturally; of illness, with its sharp reminder that life one day must stop; of love, when the sound of a voice changes the universe; or of spring, when a new softness in the air, nameless by any sense, proclaims the arrival of gigantic, flooding life. But the beginning of a storm is so wonderful that it can easily eat up disappointment. For the preparations are so long and gradual, so sure, so steadily matured, so cumulative; at first so negligible, yet with a hint of genuine grandeur coming, that the blood is stirred, and the heart, first warned, then awed. He is a fortunate man who, in these sophisticated days, can find it in him to acknowledge this trace of the primitive spirit of worship. That faint, mysterious tremor that runs through Nature everywhere is divine in its first gentle yet calculated insignificance.
The animal and vegetable world at once respond to it; birds and fishes know, the insects know as well; trees note it and keep very still; all take instantly their best precautions; and only men, not aware of it until it is too late, disregard the delicate warning at their peril. Few humans can feel that the pressure of the air has altered. They watch an instrument and whisper: "Ah, the glass is falling!" The change is born, of course, so very far away. How should they know? Culture has dulled their primitive awareness.
And that night the stars were ominously clear and brilliant. In the morning there were other signs as well. At three o'clock just when the east was blushing, my companion called me, or rather came into my room. "Up already!" he exclaimed; "I just came in to see. What do you think of it? That barometer was a fraud." We went out upon the wooden balcony and saw the distant ridges mercilessly outlined in the growing light; the summits were near enough to throw a rope across.
"Too close," I said, with misgivings born of long experience.
"But look!" he objected, "there's not a single cloud." He loathed my caution, deeming it proud imagination only. "It's simply brilliant," he added, his young eagerness unspoilt by knowledge. I shook my older head. Some inborn instinct made me firm for once. Ten years before I should have been overridden, and have started on our perilous two-days' climb with ample hope.
"It's a whole day to the hut," I reminded him, "and then suppose we wake to mist and wind and possibly driving snow? Let's wait till we're certain and the glass is rising slowly. For instance, look at that!" And I pointed to a narrow straw of vapour that trailed clingingly across the first huge precipice, five hours away, good going. It was tinged with a faint, transparent pink—unduly luminous.
"That's nothing," he exclaimed contemptuously, "mere bit of early morning mist. Why, I've known—"
"But it's too low down," I interrupted. "On the top it would not matter, it has no business there. It means changed or changing temperature."
He shivered in his thin pyjamas, yet did not realise that dry cold would not have made him shiver. In the night a new thing had crept in upon the valley—dampness.
"And listen," I added, as the tops of the pines below the balcony stirred with a rustling sound that as quickly died away again.
"The morning wind," he cried, "that's all."
"But the sound of falling water with it. The north or east—good winds—would not move a single branch down here. Observe the lie of the land." He did so grumpily enough.
"It's from the south," I observed, "and it's blowing up the valley."
"There's hardly any wind at all, anyhow," he said impatiently.
"But what there is is southerly. The wind has changed. You feel its dampness? That damp is evil. Why, man, you can smell it!" For a strong odour of earth and grass and growing things lay behind the exquisite morning freshness of the dawn, and the fragrance, though so pleasant, was suspicious. It was moisture that brought it out.
"Oh, you know best, I suppose," he growled, "though it looks all right, and I should call it perfect." He glanced at me with a trifle more respect, however—that change of wind had shaken his confidence!—then shrugged his shoulders and moved off reluctantly to bed. "You tell the guides, then," he added, with resignation, and was gone before he caught my answer: "if they're fools enough to come!"
But the guides, of course, put in no appearance. They ought, by rights, to have ascertained the "Herr's" decision, but took it for granted his opinion would be their own. I admit there was this childish pride and pleasure in the disappointment, and to be right even in prophesying disaster holds a faint satisfaction. It was the "Herr's" pleasure, however, to sit up and watch this marvellous beginning of a storm. The preparations for its splendid climax were so indecipherably faint, yet so carefully planned, that though the brilliance of last night's stars had announced their coming, six hours had passed and brought them apparently no nearer. The storm was being massed for attack below the edges of the visible world. One thought of it as a living monstrous thing that would presently come crowding and crashing down the heavens, alive for miles, and full of violent fury. It was too. gigantic to move quickly; each separate detail must be trained and ready before the accumulated blow could fall; but hints of wind and moisture, like delicate antennæ, were stretched out in advance to warn the sensitive nerves of those who had them.
I brewed some chocolate, and, with rugs and blankets on the narrow balcony, I watched the paling stars. This slow beginning of terrific weather thrilled me. It was unbelievably slow, unnecessarily cautious; its growth, unhasting but unhindered, brooked no interference, however, and there was a hint of diabolical thoroughness in the steady way beginning crept towards fulfilment. All Nature was pressed into the service; the entire firmament laboured to one given end. The imagination became conscious almost of personal direction in this consummate marshalling of such huge forces in sympathetic combination. Yet once or twice, for all my pride of certainty—particularly at half-past five, for instance, when the advance seemed stayed—I confess I had misgivings, and was tempted to wake my friend again and scold the guides for their inexcusable delay. For the weather held so still and brilliant. "Look at the sky!" I would have cried to the men. "How could you have been deceived by those false, transient signs of change?" Some deity of luck preserved me from their inevitable answer: "We thought the 'Herr' could have told what's surely coming!"
It was of marvellous, though sinister, beauty, well worth the loss of hours of beauty sleep, even worth the loss of the expedition as well, to see the wonder of the dawn across the awful heights, falling on cliff and ridge, and stealing along the high, faint snowfields in the break between the periods. The colours may be guessed, but not described, with the aspect of veiled terror that they wore, of menace in the strange diffusion of the light, and in the apparent innocence of sun and shadow that masked their changed expression. For nowhere was expression quite the same as on an innocent morning. The rising of the valley out of sleep, the creeping light, the guileless freshness of the air that brought the tumbling water loud and close, the general stillness, peace and calm—all these were different, but oh! so little different, to their normal aspect when the glass stood high. It was mere pretence, of course. The coming violence attempted to steal unnoticed and unawares upon the sky. Behind that treacherous calm it piled up forces that presently would shake the mountains and make the old woods howl. Yet at six o'clock the big peaks still looked friendly in the crystal atmosphere, and it was not till nearly nine that these first assurances of a perfect day began to fade. They passed, slipping away with an unnoticed skill that suggested cunning. No clouds were visible, and no wind to mention stirred, but there crawled into the air a certain dimness that lessened the first unearthly brilliance. Something waned, and the sting of the sharp, delicious heat was gone. Less than haze, it yet took the flash out of the sunshine, and while sound grew clearer, closer, the outlines of both trees and peaks stood blurred a little. Few would have noticed any definite change as yet, none, perhaps, but very keen observers with an interest at stake; but by half-past ten there lay an observable shadow over the entire heavens, cast by no cloud, but as though the tide of light rushed down, then halted and drew back. Before eleven it was a curious, faint veil, and an hour later it had dimmed the normal blaze of noon. There was a glare of unpleasant brilliance that hurt the eyes.
Then, from noon till perhaps after two o'clock, there came a pause when nothing happened, and only a great thick stillness settled over everything. And the pause was ominous, freighted with presentiment; the freshness of the upland world was gone entirely; it seemed a dull, exhausted, burnt-out day. The smell of grass and earth became more marked, and there were soft touches of moisture in the eyes and on the skin; the flies "sticky," their tickling of the face and hands persistent, and that state of irritation known as "nerves on edge" required steady handling. But though outwardly all this time the signs had seemed minute, they had really be immense, and the entire heavens wrote the letters clear. For as the light had piled in waves upon the eastern sky, the west had given its too early answer, and the suspicious radiance that had brought so grand a dawn was of the same evil quality that had lit the stars too brilliantly the night before. By four o'clock, then, just as the shadows lengthened steeply in the nearer gorges, a delicate trail of fine-spun cloud came thinning down the sky from south to north at an incredible height above the tallest peaks. So tenuous as to be scarcely visible, it lined the atmosphere where no clouds were, and at five o'clock, when the afternoon was waning, there appeared as if by magic, in several spots at once, small patches of isolated mist that had darkness on their underside. Below the giddy ridge where our proposed night shelter perched—the hut—they gathered suddenly into a single line, and fifteen minutes later there was a harrier of dirty-looking cloud that was rising—rising in places at considerable speed. On the edges it leaped and coiled with a kind of hurrying impatience. Yet all this time—these twenty hours of interval—the entire heavens had conspired together to produce no more than this thickening cloud that was the first visible sign a townsman need have noticed with anxiety. The peaks, however, were close enough now to touch; a stifling, oven heat, airless as a concert hall, hung everywhere; there was a strange, deep stillness; and from the distant upper pastures the sound of cow-bells came queerly down the village street. The birds had ceased their singing long before.
The wreaths and lines of vapour meanwhile spread and thickened, gaining ground, some rising, others sinking, new centres forming everywhere with a rapidity that argued admirable preparation. A coiling mist wrapped hurriedly about one summit after another, yet leaving the actual top in shining light. A ring was round the sun, immensely distant from it, with a diameter of many miles of sky. The heat in the valley, pressed down and running over, made breathing increasingly oppressive; the sunlight filtered badly and unevenly. The peasants looked skywards and said no word, but barn doors were shut and the cattle came to water early in the nearer pastures. In spots the air grew colder, and suddenly, with dramatic abruptness, solitary puffs of heated wind came rushing up our valley from the south. Heralded by clouds of dust they passed and went their way, first having tossed the waiting trees, not twice, but once, rattled the windows, closed the open doors—went their way upwards to bear word that all was ready for the main attack.
Long, ominous silences followed, but with the lurid sunset the change, so long maturing, now dropped swiftly. At dusk there was heavy roaring in the mountains as the winds let loose against the darkening cliffs. It was audible even on our balcony. And, before the appointed time, there fell a sea of blackness on the world that blotted out in less than a dozen minutes the last vestiges of sunset or of gleaming, distant snow. By 7.30 the true wind began to rise, or, properly speaking, began to reach us in our sunken hollow. Up the valley like a crying voice it swept, in no puffs now, but in a steady torrent. It wailed and moaned. None perhaps but a climber knows that desolate sound, that strange, wild whistling among rocks and trees, that shrill and angry calling to the earth. It is a threatening sound. He hears a host of javelins and lances flying, for he knows the sting and pierce of that sharp, wetted wind. There is grim foreboding in it, and presentiment in the hot and empty pauses that lie between the heavy gusts. And the upper wind came down to meet it. Again the deep roaring became audible, though where no man could tell, for it was everywhere and filled the inky sky. It descended with its battle howl from the iron fastnesses of scree and precipice and from the bitter snowfield that had iced its fury. It was a wind that could blow a man from the securest foothold into space, mow down the older trees like matches, and even loosen rocks. It seemed the mountains stooped to heave their shoulders, driving it down with crushing power upon our village between the forests.
We had little sleep that night. The storm was, of course, the worst that had ever been known. It lasted with unabated fury and with torrential rain for forty hours. Its suddenness, the unenlightened said, was so extraordinary. It came, as it seemed, out of a clear and harmless sky. Only the few who watched as we had watched knew of its marvellous genesis and careful growth, its gradual and distant preparation, the birth of its small beginning hours and hours before it came.