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Mark Twain > A Tramp Abroad > Chapter XXXVII

A Tramp Abroad

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 44 Mules 1 Fine
ditto 44 Muleteers 7 Cows 2 Milkers

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

RATIONS, ETC. APPARATUS

16 Cases Hams 25 Spring Mattresses 2 Barrels Flour 2
Hair ditto 22 Barrels Whiskey Bedding for same 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.

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