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The Crystal Hunters: A Boy's Adventures in the Higher Alps, Page 2

George Manville Fenn



  The track for some distance up the valley was so rugged and narrow thatthe little party had to go in single file; but after a time they cameupon a more open part, less encumbered with rock, and, with the lad onahead, Richard Dale strode up abreast of the guide, and, taking out hiscase, lit a cigar, and offered one to the Swiss.

  The guide shook his head.

  "No, thank you, herr," he said; "I seldom smoke anything but my pipe."

  They went on for a while in silence, the only sound falling upon theirears being the continuous roar of the torrent-like river which rusheddown the valley in a narrow chasm far below their feet--one series ofthundering cascades, all foam and milky glacier water.

  Patches of pine forest, with the trees crowded close together, everystem straight as an arrow, ran for some distance up the sides of thevale; but there was no sign or note of bird. All was solemn and still,save that deep-toned roar.

  Saxe stopped suddenly, waited till they came near, and held up his hand.

  "What is it?" said Dale.

  "Isn't it wonderful, Mr Dale? Only two days ago in London, and here weare in this wild place! Why, you can't hear a sound but the water!"

  Almost as he spoke he bounded from the spot where he was standing, andran a few yards in alarm.

  For from somewhere unseen and high above, there was a sudden roar, aterrific crash, then a rushing sound, followed by a dead silence of afew seconds, and then the earth seemed to receive a quivering blow,resulting in a boom like that of some monstrous gun, and the noise nowran up the valley, vibrating from side to side, till it died away in alow moan.

  The boy looked wildly from one to the other, to see that his uncle wasquite unmoved and that the guide was smiling at him.

  "Then that was thunder?" he said inquiringly.

  "No; a big piece of rock split off and fell," replied the guide.

  "Is there no danger?"

  "It would have been dangerous if we had been there."

  "But where is `there'?"

  "Up yonder," said the guide, pointing over the pine-wood toward the topof the wall of rock, a perpendicular precipice fully three thousand feetin height. "The rock split off up the mountain somewhere, rushed down,and then fell."

  "Can we see?"

  "Oh yes; I could find the place," said the guide, looking at Dale.

  "No, no: we will go on," said the latter. "It would take us two orthree hours. That sort of thing is often going on out here, Saxe."

  "But why did it fall? Is any one blasting rock over there?"

  "Yes, Nature: blasting with cold and heat."

  Saxe looked at him inquiringly.

  "You'll soon understand all this, my lad," said Dale. "The rocks highup the mountains are always crumbling down."

  "Crumbling? I don't call that crumbling."

  "Call it what you like; but that was a crumb which fell down here, mylad. You see the snow and ice over yonder?"


  "Well, of course that means that there is constant freezing going onthere, except when the sun is blazing down at midday."

  "Yes, I understand that," said Saxe.

  "Well, the rock gets its veins charged with water from the melting ofthe snow in the daytime, and at night it freezes again; the waterexpands in freezing, and splits the rock away, but it does not slip,because it is kept in position by the ice. By-and-by, on an extra hotday, that ice melts, and, there being nothing to support it, the mass ofrock falls, and drives more with it, perhaps, and the whole comesthundering down."

  "I should like to see how big the piece was," said Saxe; "it must havebeen close here."

  "No," said the guide; "perhaps two miles away."

  Dale made a sign, and they went on again.

  "Wait a bit, Saxe, and you'll see plenty of falling rock. I dare say weshall be cannonaded by stones some day."

  "But shall we see an avalanche!"

  "It's a great chance if we see one of the great falls which fill valleysand bury villages; but if you keep your eyes open I dare say we shallsee several small ones to-day."

  The lad glanced quickly up, and the meaning of that look was readdirectly.

  "No," said Dale quietly, "I am not joking, but speaking frankly to onewhom I have chosen as my companion in this enterprise. Come, Saxe, youand I must now be more like helpmates--I mean, less of man and boy, morelike two men who trust each other."

  "I shall be very glad," said the boy eagerly.

  "Then we start so from this moment. We'll forget you are only sixteenor seventeen."

  "Nearly seventeen."

  "Yes. For, without being gloomy, we must be serious. As Melchior says,`the mountains are solemn in their greatness.' Look!"

  They had just turned the corner of a huge buttress of rock, and Dalepointed up the valley to the wonderful panorama of mountain and glacierwhich suddenly burst upon their view. Snowy peak rising behind greenalps dotted with cattle, and beyond the glittering peak other pyramidsand spires of ice with cols and hollows full of unsullied snow, likehuge waves suddenly frozen, with their ridges, ripples, and curvespreserved.

  "It is grand!" cried the boy, gazing excitedly before him at the mostwondrous picture that had ever met his eyes.

  "Yes," said Dale; "and it has the advantage that every step we takebrings us to something grander. That is only your first peep intoNature's wilds, some of which are as awful as they are vast. There goesone of the inhabitants."

  For at that moment, soaring high above the valley, a huge bird floatedbetween them and the intensely blue sky.

  "An eagle!"

  "Yes; the lammergeyer--the Alpine eagle."

  "But what a name!" said Saxe.

  "Suitable enough," said Dale quietly. "We call our little bird of preya sparrow-hawk. Well, this bird--lammergeyer--is the one which preys onlambs."

  The eagle soared higher and higher till it was well above theperpendicular wall of rock on their left, and then glided onward towardthe snow, rapidly passing out of sight; while the trio tramped on,passing a chalet here and another there, with its wooden shingled roofladen with great stones to keep all intact against the terrific windswhich at times sweep down the valley from the ice ahead. Now their waylay down by the foaming torrent, half choked with ragged pine trunks,torn out of their birthplaces by tempests, or swept away by downfalls ofsnow or rock; then they panted up some zigzag, faintly marked, where itwas impossible to follow the bed of the stream; and as they climbedhigher fresh visions of grandeur opened out before them, though the pathwas so rugged that much of the view was lost in the attention that hadto be given to where they placed their feet. But from time to time ahalt was called, a geological hammer produced, and a piece of the rock,that had come bounding down from half a mile above them, was shifted andexamined--pure limestone, now granite of some form, or hornblende, whilethe guide rested upon the head of his axe, and looked on.

  "You English are a wonderful people," he said at last.

  "Why?" said Saxe.

  "A Frenchman would come up here--no, he would not: this would be toodifficult and rough; he would get hot and tired, and pick his way forfear of hurting his shiny boots. But if he did he would seek two orthree bright flowers to wear in his coat, he would look at themountains, and then sit down idle."

  "And the English?" said Saxe.

  "Ah, yes, you English! Nothing escapes you, nor the Americans. You arealways looking for something to turn into money."

  "Which we are not doing now," said Dale quietly. "But very few peoplecome up here."

  "Very few, but those who have cows or goats up on the green alps."

  "And you think this is one of the grandest and wildest valleys youknow?"

  "It is small," said the guide, "but it is the most solitary, and leadsinto the wildest parts. See: in a short time we shall reach theglacier, and then always ice, snow, and rock too steep for the snow tostand, and beyond that the eternal silence of the never-
ending winter."

  Two hours' climb more than walk, with the sun coming down with scorchingpower; but in spite of the labour, no weariness assailing thetravellers, for the air seemed to give new life and strength at everybreath they drew. But now, in place of the view being more grand, asthey climbed higher the valley grew narrow, the scarped rocks on eitherside towered aloft and shut out the snowy peaks, and at last their pathled them amongst a dense forest of pines, through whose summits the windsighed and the roaring torrent's sound was diminished to a murmur.

  This proved to be a harder climb than any they had yet undertaken, theslope being very steep, and the way encumbered by masses of rock whichhad fallen from above and become wedged in among the pine trunks.

  "Tired, Saxe?" said Dale, after a time.

  "I don't know, sir. That is, my legs are tired, but I'm not so upward.I want to go on."

  "In half an hour we shall be through," said Melchior; "then there are nomore trees--only a green matt, with a chalet and goats and cows."

  "That means milk," said Saxe eagerly.

  "Yes, and bread and cheese," said Melchior, smiling.

  "Then I'm not tired. I'm sure of it now, sir," said Saxe merrily; andthe next half-hour was passed in a steady tramp, the guide leading assurely as if he had passed all his days in that gloomy patch of forest,never hesitating for a moment, but winding in and out to avoid theinnumerable blocks which must have lain there before the pines hadsprung up and grown for perhaps a hundred years.

  Then there was bright daylight ahead, and in a few more strides the lasttrees were passed, and they came out suddenly in an amphitheatre of barerocks, almost elliptical, but coming together at the head, and bendingaway like a comma turned upside down.

  At the moment they stepped on to the green stunted pasture, dotted withflowers, the roar of the torrent came up from a gash in the rocks farbelow, and to right and left, from at least three hundred feet up, thewaters of no less than five streams glided softly over the rocks, andfell slowly in silvery foam, to form so many tributaries of the torrentfar below.

  The effect of those falls was wonderful, and for the first few minutesit seemed as if the water had just awakened at its various sources, andwas in no hurry to join the mad, impetuous stream below, so slowly itdropped, turning into spray, which grew more and more misty as itdescended, while every now and then a jet as of silver rockets shot overfrom the top, head and tail being exactly defined, but of course inwater instead of sparks.

  "Will this do, Saxe?" said Dale, smiling.

  "Do! Oh, come on. I want to get close up to those falls."

  "Aren't you tired?"

  "Tired!" cried Saxe. "What fellow could feel tired in a place likethis!"