By Elsie M. Hornsey. As published in The Weekly Courier annual, 1909.
The ledge stood out boldly from the side of Mount Wellington. Above, the vast amphitheatre of snow field and ice gorge loomed; below every crevice had become a funnel, feeding the torrents which came pouring into the lower reaches, and boomed slow artillery. White-capped hills and frosted fern gullies stretched for miles. In the hollow a miniature city nestled, the roofs of the houses shining faintly through the wintry sunshine. The lowlands shimmered burnished copper, the heights shadowy purple, and as far as eye could reach, making music in sheltered bay and rock-bound coast; the sea gleamed indigo. Justin Dale stood on the threshold of the rocky spur, and the beauty of the surrounding country gathered a familiar nearness. His far-searching gaze swept the horizon, and, returning, rested on the threadlike track which ran zigzag through the snow.
“So run our lives,” he soliloquised; “for a space the way is clear, then the elbow looms and the zigzag path begins; it never wholly straightens again, and, yet in Nature’s magnificent tribute to the souls of men how dare we disbelieve in a Supreme Being, yet—”
He stood there for some time regarding steadily, but with unseeing eye, the uncompromising boulder; then, shrugging his shoulders, he laughed. “The bit’s between my teeth,” he said slowly; “I must hang on.” Turning, his eyes singled out moving figures. Adjusting his field glasses, he stood watching. The moving shapes assumed the proportions of human beings. They trailed out of the snow, and stood on a rocky spur. Two persons—a man and a woman. Presently they stepped on to a lower ridge, and were lost to view.
“I must move on,” he said; “solitude is more to my taste;” but he hesitated, leaning back against a boulder, lost in reverie. He was roused by a voice, so faint it came up the wind hardly more than a human breath. Listening intently, it came again. He started, then a faint tinge spread itself beneath the tan of his cheek. He laughed nervously. “I’m getting fanciful,” he said; “this air is intoxicating to the senses.”
Replacing his glasses in their case, he took his alpenstock from between two boulders, and prepared to descend the snow-covered steps. It was then that he saw the girl below him. Her face was piquant, and radiant; her eyes, nymph-like and starry, shone straight into his. An instant of surprise held each other tongue-tied then she smiled as she said, “Well, of all the places to meet, this is the most extraordinary.”
He pushed down over the ledge, and, making a detour, came up below her. The snow was looser there, and he sank deeply at every step. Staying himself with one hand on a heavier slab, he held the other out to greet her. “You are like a visitation from the clouds,” he said. “I had a presentiment that something pleasant was going to happen, and then I heard your voice through the mists.”
“And you?” she returned “Report said you had gone to Japan.”
“Well, for once report was wrong,” he answered slowly. “I went to New Zealand, then came here, en route for Japan—but this is a state secret, mind.”
The smile had left her mouth, though it still lingered in her eyes. Her mind carried her back some nine months, to the scenes of their early intimacy, when, suddenly, in the midst of the political campaign he had withdrawn himself, leaving his band of untiring workers and staunch allies in a slough of despondency, sore with doubt and distrust. It was done so quietly that he had taken his departure before they had realised it. A few lines appeared in the leading journal stating that “Mr. Justin Dale had left for Japan to enjoy a well-earned rest.”
The night before his departure there had been a ball at Government House, and the acknowledged belle had been Joan, Judge Heman’s only daughter. Flowerlike and beautiful she stood on the dais, bestowing with a smile the favour of a dance to one or two of the most ardent. Every moment her eyes glanced through the long room, with its gleaming lights and festive air, for the sight of one who at his coming would turn the world to fairyland. At last he appeared, wending his way slowly through outstretched hands and smiles of greeting, and, as he reached her side, the knot of men gathered there melted away, resigning without comment the favoured place to him.
The opening bars of an Hungarian valse steeped the air in melody. Joan and her companion stepped down from the dais, and mingled with the dancers. Pausing near an entrance, they slipped out into the fragrant night. Tiny electric globes shone like stars from the swaying boughs of trees, and below the wall the waves swayed to and fro in dreamy monotone. The girl’s observant eyes noted a new shadow on his brow, but she made no remark. In after days words choked in their utterance and veiled insinuations came back to haunt her with startling force.
The first she knew of his departure was the announcement in the paper, and as a dove will clasp its wings to its side to cover and conceal the arrow that is preying on its vitals, so did Joan hide from curious eyes the pangs of that wounded affection and slighted comradeship. Yet, no twinges of bitterness crept into her voice as she answered, “The affairs of state are serious matters; I hold them in awe, as a judge’s daughter should. My father is at the Springs awaiting my return; he braved Tasmania in the winter simply to indulge my whim to climb Mount Wellington with the snow on it. When we reached the Springs the prospect alarmed him, and he wished me to abandon the idea, but I coaxed him round, and was duly provided with a guide. Where is he, I wonder? Exton,” she called, and a slim lad appeared. “He knows every inch of the mountain, and has promised to have me safely back by four o’clock.”
Dale rapidly grasped the situation. A brilliant idea struck him. Moving closer, he said in a low voice, “I came to Tasmania also specially to do Mount Wellington in the snow time; to-morrow I am leaving; we may never meet again. Let me send Exton back, and we will make the ascent together.”
“But my father?” she interrogated. “I can send him a note explaining.”
Tremblingly she looked at him; the flush paled in her cheek; he waited; she withdrew her eyes from his, sweeping the horizon until they rested on the dim hills, bluish grey, which seemed to touch the sky leagues away. Then she laughed. “It will be delightful,” she said at last. He tore a leaf from his pocket-book; scribbled a few lines to the Judge, made a few explanations to Exton, slipping a gold coin into his hand as he did so. Then, turning to her, he asked, “Shall we make a start?” Answering the entreaty in his eyes, she held out her hand, and they proceeded slowly over the frozen ground.
For miles the wonderful whiteness spread around them, and the weird beauty of it all held Joan in a grip that was almost pain. “What a big thing life is,” she said; “one realises how much it means here in this frozen stillness.”
“Yes,” he answered; “through Nature the voice of God speaks to the souls of men, and yet how easy it is to shut our ears when we mingle with the jostling crowd.”
Huge rocks towered overhead, glittering with diamond drops that splashed against them as they passed. Now a solitary stunted oak appeared, then a gum—gaunt skirmishers, struggling for holdings on rocky spurs, and made ready for the close column of the tree line. Looking back, they traced the tracks their feet had made, set like a series of tilted shelves on the precipitous slope. Dale, Joan’s hand in his, planted his foot on what looked like a huge flat stone. It gave underfoot—the next moment they were falling, and Dale found himself waist deep in water, with the girl shielded in his arms. Helping her to the next rock, he straightened himself. The light filtering down rocky tunnels overhead shone upon her; he saw the colour rush to her cheeks; it deepened two burning spots. Her blue eyes flamed. She stood, all warmth—fire—a glowing shape in the heart of a snow cave. He had never seen a woman so alluring; yet he thought that she was angry.
“I am sorry,” he began, and his voice sounded through the stillness like the deep-toned echoes of a bell, “it looked so safe.”
“Oh,” she said laughingly, “do you think I need an explanation? It is enough to think you risked yourself for me.”
He braved her look again, and, answering the merriment in her eyes, held out his hand for hers, and they proceeded, wading knee deep occasionally through snow wastes. Nearing the summit the wind changed, and blew sharp across the snow field. He turned to her anxiously: “Are you well protected? We shall catch it at the top.” She answered him promptly by her ready assertion of absolute warmth and the joyous expression of her sparkling eyes.
Reaching the summit, they stopped breathless. The last pinch was steep and perilous. “So,” he said, and the humorous lines about his eyes deepened, “So you came through all right; but it was a rough trip. Shall we move on and take shelter under the shed?” Reaching the flagstaff, they turned to survey the wondrous beauty of the mellowed landscape. The world was drunk with sunshine, and beyond the wide waste of dazzling whiteness the sea outdistanced their far-reaching gaze. Broad plateau, curving reaches, stately pile, and silvery seashore; the whole panoramic view from the picturesque Derwent to the broad Pacific ocean was spread before them. It stirred their souls strangely, and, standing there together, each realised what the other felt, and, to Joan, the unexplained breach was atoned for. The shed was only a deserted way shelter, used but rarely, and they enjoyed that little meal produced from Dale’s well filled knapsack amazingly. Later, he fixed a rough hammock for her out of bags, and she lounged comfortably by the fire he had kindled.
He told her of an adventure he had experienced in New Zealand. The snow had been broken by a rock slide capped by a firm buttress of granite. He had miscalculated the pitch and the distance across the slide, and had chosen a treacherous way to join the rest of the party; then he slipped, and was caught in a niche far down the side of the sliding rock. Just as he was despairing of all hope of relief rescue came. An instant after the whole slide was in motion, and swept everything before it fully 500 feet.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “if help had been a moment later, how terrible.”
” Yes,” he said, “death seemed close to me then, and I shuddered; but I have thought since what a monument to stand above one’s last resting-place—the eternal silence of the snow-capped mountains. The fates, however, were against me.”
He laughed. The sound travelled pleasantly, and her own laugh—expostulating, sweetly subdued—chimed an undertone. Time and place was forgotten; the short winter afternoon waned, the shadows deepened in the gorge below, the lights paled from burnished copper to amethyst, darkening to royal purple, the sun dipped, a floating mass of black cloud threatened ominously. Dale, noticing this, urged a speedy departure, and they began the descent. It was intensely cold, water trickled and splashed from the snow walls.
Below the organ pipes Justin paused to tighten the straps of his knapsack, and Joan moved on alone. Just in front a deep chasm yawned. Miscalculating the distance Joan sprang, and the next moment found herself lying between the clefs of the huge rocks. With a cry of dismay Dale peered over, and Joan’s face, unafraid, was lifted to his, and she laughed. But her laugh did not deceive him. He stooped and grasped her arm; then his hand went to her waist, and, with a dexterous movement, he placed her beside him on the ledge. Leaning all her weight on him, she rested, as a sickening pain in her ankle drove the colour from her cheeks. She felt bruised and numbed, although she assured him that she was unhurt. She tried to walk, but would have fallen had not Dale caught her in his arms.
“I am afraid I have hurt my ankle,” she admitted at last. The look of anxiety deepened in Dale’s eyes, as his glance wandered over the downward grade. Darkness was coming on. “I am afraid I shall have to carry you; if you can only hold out I shall soon have you down the worst part.” Her face flamed anew. She regarded him with wide eyes, and she shivered.
“You are cold and in pain.” He lifted her up. “You will have to put your arms round my neck, and leave matters to me. That’s better!”
The way was rough and uncertain. He felt his steps cautiously, and his teeth held his lower lip in a vice-like grip. He took a long breath, and braced himself for renewed efforts. Stumbling out of a difficult place, he halted, seating the girl on a rock and sinking a trifle winded in a sitting posture at her feet.
“Oh, I am altogether too heavy,” she said remorsefully.
“I would like to tell you how light you are to me; the way is not half far enough.”
His eyes sought hers, and she turned her face to hide the joy that could not mask itself. Dale scanned the sky, and his anxiety increased. The black cloud had spread into sombre floating masses, which spread rapidly, obscuring the wide canopy of the heavens. On the heights the twilight deepened; they were a long way from the Springs, and a snowstorm seemed impending. Again taking Joan in his arms, and carefully groping for a footing, he held on his way. He was not altogether sure of the track in the gloom, and a night spent on the side of the mountain in such weather did not call for enthusiasm. Reaching a tangle of creeping vine and scrub, he once more put Joan down in the scanty shelter it afforded.
“I will leave you for a moment,” he said, “and go a little way and reconnoitre. Then the snow began to fall. Joan’s ankle ached unceasingly, and the icy coldness gnawed at her innermost being. She grew sick with the feeling of desolation that came over her. When Dale returned the snow was falling fast, and the way lay a stretch of whiteness.
“Further down I have found a small cave; we will take shelter there.” Lifting her unresistingly in his arms, he strode down the hillside.
“What if it snows all night, Joan?” he whispered. “Will you be afraid to remain alone in this waste with me?”
At the sound of her name on his lips she drew a deep breath. It came warm against his neck. Then she laughed a little tremulous laugh, but she remained silent.
Soon they gained a ledge, where a great block of granite uptilted against a wall, forming a small cave. Placing her carefully down he lit a match, and by the aid of its flickering light she saw that it was dry, the ground being thickly strewn with small twigs and bark. Making a cushion of his knapsack to rest her aching foot on, he sat down beside her.
“When it clears I will make a bonfire as a signal. The Judge will be anxious at our absence, and will send someone to search for us, and the light will guide them.”
When the storm subsided Dale rose, and Joan’s heart gave a wild throb as she saw him leave her side. Night had fallen, and the obscurity of the cave became denser and denser. Uncertain shapes peopled the gloom; the swaying of a bough, the creaking of a dead branch, these became a mystery and a terror, and the few minutes before he returned seemed an hour. She took his arm in her two hands. “Oh, don’t leave me again,” she said piteously. He laughed his deep, low, pleasant laugh as he threw himself clown beside her.
“How resourceful you are!” she went on. “I never dreamed you were so capable or so strong. I am sure there is nothing in this grim mountain would frighten you.”
“Yes,” he replied, “there is one thing—here in this cave—makes me lose my head.” His voice faltered and broke off.
“And that is?” she asked, after a pause.
“You.” He stopped short, and the colour rushed to her face. He turned to her: “Forgive me for saying that; I had no right.”
Joan could not speak, and the beacon, kindled high to signal her father, illuminated the cave: the wind drawing down from the heights sharpened, a white frost held the slope. On the right the falls muttered like a waking giant, thundering a challenge to the threatening forces above.
Joan shivered. “It is all so big, so strange, so startling,” she exclaimed. “Everything up here assumes such colossal proportions.
“Yes,” he answered. “I have seen the whole face of a mountain change within five minutes, and it takes a lifetime to show a man at his best, or his worst. You would know him better here in five minutes than you would in a year spent next him in a city.”
“I can understand that, I think,” Joan answered. “I know you better now than I did twelve months ago, when we rode and golfed and danced all summer and winter through. Those kind of things—what do they count in the face of to-day?”
Dale glanced at her in pleased surprise. “Why, you look at things in the same light as I do. I was returned for the Senate principally because I had made myself fairly well acquainted with the vexed question of the tariff and its bearings on the revenues of the several states,” he explained modestly. “I was heart and soul in the cause at first; then I began to question myself whether it was worth while taking an immense amount of trouble, perhaps for nothing, for each state had its own interests to serve, and there might be no finality for several sessions. So I resolved to abandon the whole thing—go away somewhere, and get right on the top of everything and take a long breath.” He glanced at her apprehensively. “I know,” she said, “how you must have felt; it was freedom you were hungering for—the heights and the splendour of the upper peaks; but—the world judged you when you left it.” Her lashes fell, and she suddenly found it difficult to meet his gaze.
“I said good-bye,” he continued, “to the world when I left it; I care nothing for what it may say or think; I tried not to care what you thought; but I do—I do. How did you judge me?”
Joan raised serious eyes to his. “I judge you now,” she answered, “for the past, for the future, for all time. I think you are the bravest, the best man I know ; I have always thought it.”
“I see,” he said ; “you think I am built on big lines like everything else up here.”
“Yes, I can never find words big enough to thank you for to-day.”
“Don’t try,” he answered. “I am not in the least what you think; these last few hours have been the happiest of my life. They will serve for a memory when everything else fails.”
He paused, listening, and there came back to his quick ear a sound from up the mountain side. Standing up, and making a trumpet of his hands, he gave a loud “halloo!” It was answered by a faint “Coo-ee!”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “they are coming; it is all over.”
Returning to her side, he looked down on her uplifted face. “So you are sorry; is that true?”
Her glance fell from his. “These last few hours have been the happiest of my life, too,” she said slowly.
He knelt at her side, taking her hands in his. “Joan,” he whispered hoarsely, “shall I tell you why I left Melbourne when my career was at its zenith? Shall I tell you why I left it all, and my hope for my future happiness besides? Shall I?”
She drew a long breath, and a flush that was not the reflection of the fire leapt into her face.
“No,” she said softly, “there is no need to tell me; I know it must have been something great to cause you to leave when you did, but I am glad you want to tell me now.”
There was a muffled sound on the slope without—the crunch of feet over snow. “They will be here in a minute or two now, you will never need me again, but I cannot help telling you.”
His voice deepened, and he turned his face to the gloom in the far reaches of the cave. “You cannot know what it has meant to me to have you like this, all to myself; it will stand out fine and clear, the whitest day of my life, and next to it, the first day I ever saw you as you waited with your father on the steps of your house for me to join you. Wherever I have been, wherever I go, I shall see you standing there, looking down at me as I came across the grassy slope, when you first turned that glance on me, so swift, so bright, so enthralling; I felt all stirred up, ready to brim right over. You see I never cared for anyone before, but in that moment my eyes met yours I just knew I wanted you more than anything in life.”
” And I,” she whispered, “when I saw you there for the first time coming towards me—so tall, so splendid—I—”
His great frame trembled, and he saw her through a sudden mist. “It was the biggest thing in my life, Joan, my love for you, and I gave it up on the very day that I was coming back to ask you to give your tender soul into my keeping. It was disclosed to me that the heritage that I had regarded as mine, I had no claim to. Joan, how can I tell you? I—am nameless—I have no right to the name I bear. What had I to offer? so I left you. I dared not even say good-bye.”
Joan’s voice trembled. “You should not have pledged me. What did anything matter if you pledged me?”
Every drop of blood had drained from his face, leaving it white and drawn. Great lines buried themselves in the warm flesh about his eyes and mouth; his breath came short and thick. Joan withdrew her hand from his, and wound one arm round his neck, drawing his face to hers. “If you had come to me nameless, and a beggar,” she said, with her cheek close pressed to his, “it would have been the same; I love you—I love you.
Justin caught her in his arms. His lips sought hers in one long kiss. “You are mine,” he whispered, “through life, through death, through eternity.” Then he straightened himself, and turned to face the relief party which stood without, looking down at the glowing embers of the dying fire.