“I think we had better try the mountain—for her sake,” answered Lynde. “We need not attempt the Mer de Glace, you know; that can be left for another day. The ascent takes only two hours, the descent half an hour less; we can easily be back in time for lunch.”
“Then let us do that.”
Lynde selected the more amiable-looking of the two mules with side-saddles, dismissed one of the guides after a brief consultation, and helped Miss Denham to mount. In attending to these preliminaries Lynde had sufficient mastery over himself not to make any indecorous betrayal of his intense satisfaction at the turn affairs had taken. Fortune had given her into his hands for five hours! She should listen this time to what he had to say, though the mountain should fall.
At a signal from Lynde the remaining guide led the way at a brisk pace through the bustling town. In front of the various hotels were noisy groups of tourists about to set forth on pilgrimages, some bound for the neighboring glaciers and cascades, and others preparing for more distant and more hardy enterprises. It was a perfect Babel of voices—French, Scotch, German, Italian, and English; with notes of every sort of patois—above which the strident bass of the mules soared triumphantly at intervals. There are not many busier spots than Chamouni at early morning in the height of the season.
Our friends soon left the tumult and confusion behind them, and were skirting the pleasant meadows outside of the town. Passing by the way of the English church, they crossed to the opposite bank of the Arve, and in a few minutes gained the hamlet lying at the foot of Montanvert. Then the guide took the bridle of Miss Ruth’s mule and the ascent began. The road stretches up the mountain in a succession of zigzags with sharp turns. Here and there the path is quarried out of the begrudging solid rock; in places the terrace is several yards wide and well wooded, but for the most part it is a barren shelf with a shaggy wall rising abruptly on one hand and a steep slope descending on the other. Higher up, these slopes become quite respectable precipices. A dozen turns, which were accomplished in unbroken silence, brought the party to an altitude of several hundred feet above the level.
“I—I don’t know that I wholly like it,” said Miss Ruth, holding on to the pommel of her saddle and looking down into the valley, checkered with fields and criss-crossed with shining rivulets. “Why do the mules persist in walking on the very edge?”
“That is a trick they get from carrying panniers. You are supposed to be a pannier, and the careful animal doesn’t want to brush you off against the rocks. See this creature of mine; he has that hind hoof slipping over the precipice all the while. But he’ll not slip; he’s as sure-footed as a chamois, and has no more taste for tumbling off the cliff than you have. These mules are wonderfully intelligent. Observe how cautiously they will put foot on a loose stone, feeling all around it.”