"IS HE DEAD?"
I opened my eyes.
The face of an old woman came slowly into focus.
I knew I wasn't dead.
What I didn't know was how I came to be lying on a rain-soaked London street in June of 1950.
My name is William Bromley and, until that moment, I had lived secure in the belief that the gods were looking out for me.
Firstly, through nothing more than luck, I had survived the war.
Secondly, despite the fact that jobs were far from plentiful, I had a steady post as a teacher at a small private school in London called St. Vernon's. This provided me with long holidays and time to take advantage of my membership at the Montague Club, where I had many acquaintances but very fewclose friends. Nor did I have any romantic attachments, which suited me just fine.
Thirdly, I had a place in the country, where I could spend my holidays. This was thanks to my father, who lived in a quiet Cotswold village named Painswick. When the school term ended, I traveled there by train and spent my days rambling through the woods, or hiking up a bald-topped hill that overlooked the distant mountains of Wales.
It does not sound like a very exciting kind of life, and indeed it wasn't. I'd had all the excitement I wanted for one lifetime in September of 1944. I felt like a man who had once been granted three wishes by a turbaned, cross-legged genie out of a lamp, and who had since spent two of those wishes just to stay alive. I kept that third wish in reserve, hoping that I'd never have to rub the magic lamp again.
Up to now, everything had been going more or less perfectly, but one thing the gods will not stand for is the joy of perfection among us mortals. Even the tiniest whiff of such contentment and they begin to scheme, plotting the chaos that will bring this happiness to an end. It is a law of the universe that anything perfect must be wrecked for its audacity in claiming to be so.
Something you can say in the gods' favor is that they aren't boring in the way they go about wrecking it. Each time, they use a different strategy. This keeps life interesting, I suppose, during those dull days up on Mount Olympus. Their methods even have a morbid sense of humor, although if you are, as I was, the butt of the joke, it's sometimes hard to see it at the time.
IT WAS A FRIDAY afternoon. I had finished up my classes for the week. The history papers I'd collected from my students remained in an uncorrected clump inside the old Hardy fishing bag I used as a school satchel. The bag was a heavy thing, its leather and canvas stiffened from afternoons spent slung across my back when I sat in the rain on the banks of the river Cherwell, taking a break from my studies at Oxford to tempt a few pike out of the tea-brown water. And the Parker 51 pen I used for marking, with ink that advertised itself as "red" but which looked to me more like fresh blood as it flowed from the little gold nib, remained tucked inside my chest pocket. Until Sunday evening, that pen and those papers would remain untouched.
As I did every Friday afternoon during the school year, I made my way downtown to the Montague, where I planted myself in a chair close to the radiator. This was where I always sat, with my back to the wall and a good view of the entranceway.
Barber arrived soon after, bearing a tray on which lay the daily paper while two bottles of Château Figeac teetered back and forth with the motion of his shuffling feet.
Barber was the caretaker of the club and he had held his post for longer than most of the club's members had been alive. Old age meant that he was more taken care of than he was actually taking care. When you asked him for something, he would usually wander off, forget what he'd been asked for, and you would find him asleep in the library half an hour later.
Barber had the look of someone who had once been more substantial but had been worn away by the years, as a piece of glass is scuffed down by the sea. Now he was a student of hisown disintegration, and often spent hours just staring at his hands, which were anchored to his wrists like two small, featherless birds.
This particular day was a cause for celebration, because Barber had remembered not only to bring me the correct paper, but even the right kind of wine. The contents of these bottles was to be shared with my best friend, Stanley Carton. Soon he would come through the door, shaking the rain from his umbrella and shivering dramatically, something he did no matter what the weather was outside, in a way that always reminded me of an old blackbird ruffling its wings. Then he would stride towards me across the red-carpeted room, eyes widening as they adjusted to the soothing darkness of the czar's green walls.
Once we had dispensed with any gossip about old schoolmates, most of whom were also members of the Montague, we would settle down to our drinks. Over the next few hours, we would polish off the wine. At the end of this we would, with great solemnity, forgive the world for all its many sins.
By Monday, all bets would be off and the world would have returned to its previous unforgiven state. But on Friday afternoons, Stanley and I made our peace with the planet, which always seemed easier to do after six glasses of Bordeaux.
Glancing at the paper, I read the grim announcement that North Korean troops had crossed the border into South Korea and seemed to be ignoring the United Nations Security Council's demands that they withdraw. Unsettling as this news appeared, I was still getting over the war I had finished with only a few years before, and had no room in my head for contemplating another. My eyes drifted to the story of a British climbing expedition soon to depart for Patagonia.
At that moment Stanley appeared. He handed his coat andumbrella to Barber and marched towards his seat, pausing only long enough to give his trademark shiver.
Stanley had a long Roman nose, blond hair so fair as to seem white, and sleepy-looking eyes which were never quite as asleep as they seemed. He was extremely agile and moved with fluid, catlike motions. He was also incredibly stubborn, which meant that he never did much of anything unless he felt like doing it. If he had ever shown interest in sports at school, he would have been an excellent long-distance runner, but Stanley was not inclined to be ordered about in the rain by a man with a whistle and a starter pistol.
It was this combination of stubbornness and agility which had later made him into such a good mountaineer, a sport neither he nor I discovered until university. In the mountains, he had no one to obey except himself, which was as close as a man like Stanley could ever get to heaven. For a while, it had seemed as if mountaineering would become a lifelong fascination to us both. But circumstances had changed. Now those climbing days were a thing of the past and we had become, each in our own way, outcasts from the mountaineering community. What we'd once had in common as climbers, we now shared as two people who no longer climbed. We even referred to our binges at the Montague as "The Weekly Meeting of the Society of Former Mountaineers."
I had known Stanley for most of my life, not only from Oxford but from Eton and the Dragon School before that. Spend fifteen years elbow to elbow with another person and there isn't much mystery left in either of you, though it does permit you to sit together in silence, which is a thing more difficult to achieve than any art of conversation. This was one of the foundations of our friendship and the reason I so valued our time at the club.
Stanley came to a stop in front of my chair and gave a ridiculous salute. "What is your plan for the evening, Mr. Bromley, sir?"
I looked up at him. "My plan is to drink heavily and agree with everything you say."
"Excellent decision!" He slid into the opposite chair, snatching the paper from my grasp as he sank into the leather cushions. "And how are the pigeons?" he asked.
I had ongoing strife with pigeons on the windowsill of my flat. "Bloody pigeons," I said. "One of these days ..." I made a gun with my thumb and index finger.
"And unlike most people I know who threaten to shoot things, mostly me, you actually possess a gun."
Quite illegally, I had held on to my Webley pistol from the war. It presently resided in a seldom-opened trunk under my bed, along with several other worn-out pieces of kit from my days in the service.
Stanley opened the paper with a dramatic rustle. "What's wrong with the world today?"
"Korea's gone all to hell," I replied.
Stanley glanced at the headlines. "Silly buggers," he said as his eyes wandered across the page. "And as for the mountains of Patagonia ..." He folded the paper and skimmed it onto the windowsill. "They're just another pile of rocks as far as I'm concerned."
I knew perfectly well that he could have found Korea on the map. It was simply his way of reaching the same conclusion as I had when I read the news. He knew where Patagonia was, as well, just as he knew the whereabouts of every other mountainous region on the planet. This, too, he felt obligated to deny.
Just after I gave up climbing, it used to be that any talk of mountains would unsettle me. Lately, though, I was pleased to find that it had less and less of an effect. To prove it to myself, I rolled a smoke. With steady hands I held the fragile paper along the line of my thumb and index finger. Then I sprinkled into it just the right pinch of tobacco, swiped my tongue along the edge of the paper, and rolled the cigarette shut.
"You know," said Stanley, "I don't understand why you still use that little tin as your tobacco box."
My "little tin" was in fact a ration box given out to all Special Operations soldiers in the war. The box was painted green, although most of the paint had worn off by now, revealing the gray glimmer of bare metal underneath. Stamped into the lid of the tin were the words EMERGENCY RATION. PURPOSE OF CONTENTS: TO BE CONSUMED ONLY WHEN NO OTHER RATIONS OF ANY KIND ARE PROCURABLE. NOTICE: NOT TO BE OPENED EXCEPT BY ORDER OF AN OFFICER.
The contents, two hard bricks of gritty-tasting chocolate, had long ago been consumed. I'd kept the tin all the way through to the end of the war and saw no need to break the habit now. It was just the right size for storing tobacco and fit neatly in my coat pocket. This was the practical reason for keeping it, though not the only reason.
To me, the little box had become a mark of my survival. Its dents and scratches were more of a medal than the one I kept in its velvet-lined presentation box.
"It's all bashed up," continued Stanley, swishing the wine through his teeth, which he did every time before he swallowed, as if he were trying out some new flavor of mouthwash. "We ought to take a walk down to Asprey's and get you a decent one. You don't have to roll your own anymore, either."As if to emphasize his point, he had by now fished out his own silver case and was tapping a prerolled cigarette vigorously on his monogrammed initials.
It was not Stanley's fault that he could not grasp the meaning of the box. I had been the one to change, not Stanley, not the club, not the mountains that we used to climb before I went away to war.
Stanley had not gone to fight, and that was why he could not understand. His father had pushed him to join the same regiment in which he and a long line of men in the Carton family had served. But the father's gentle and then not-so-gentle persuasion fell on deaf ears. Stanley announced that he would refuse to join up with his father's regiment, or any other regiment for that matter. The idea of a conscientious objector in the family so horrified his father, who ran a factory that canned meat for the army, that Stanley was hurriedly installed in the company as his father's "personal assistant." The war made Stanley's father a very wealthy man. The Bully Beef his father canned was a mash of pasty white fat and lurid red flesh. It was standard issue to the troops, no matter where they were serving. Soldiers in the jungles of Burma poured it in a greasy liquid from heat-bloated tins and men in the Arctic hacked the meat from its metal housing with the tips of bayonets.
As an employee of this vital company, Stanley had the right to wear a brass badge that read ON WAR SERVICE. By wearing the badge on his lapel, he was able to fend off the ugly stares of men in uniform, or women handing out white feathers, which signified cowardice, to any man wearing civilian clothes who looked as if he ought to be a soldier.
He was proud of this badge and kept the brass highly polished, so that it stood out against his dark jacket. As soon as the war was over, however, he threw that badge off WaterlooBridge, spinning it out across the water like a skipping stone. Since he had discarded this once-powerful trinket, it made sense to Stanley that I should also put away the relic of my own war days.
But it did not make sense to me. I was not yet ready. Nor was I the only one.
Under the shirt of the bowler-hatted banker who managed my meager accounts still hung the remains of his dog tags. At the school where I taught, the head groundskeeper carried a bullet that had nearly ended his life. It hung on the end of a watch chain straddling his waistcoat pockets. The head of the school's math department slept with a Luger beneath his pillow. And I wouldn't part with my emergency-ration box.
Now and then, as I traveled on the train to my father's home in Gloucestershire, I would be fixing myself a cigarette and sense that someone was watching me. I'd raise my head and come eye to eye with some old soldier, who knew exactly what the box was, and what it meant to carry one.
Having been with us in those moments when we stood on the verge of oblivion, these talismans served to remind us that we were still alive. Sometimes the only way to avoid being overwhelmed by what we had seen was to cling to those symbols of the days when we had taken life for granted, which none of us could ever do again.
I could have told Stanley all this, but I doubted he would understand. For the same reason, I'd never spoken to him in any detail about what had happened on the mountaineering expedition which had closed that chapter of my life for good.
I carried on rolling my smoke.
By now, Stanley was stretched out in his chair, feet up on a cushioned stool and joined heels making a V with his outward-pointing toes. He puffed his cheeks and noisily exhaled.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I'm in love," he sighed, the way a person might confess to having lost too much money at the races.
I made a vague attempt to sit up. "Sounds serious," I said.
"Oh, it is," he replied.
"Well, who's the lucky girl?" I asked. I wasn't completely sure I wanted to know. One didn't normally discuss one's romances at the club. You could talk about almost anything else, but not about love.
"Her name," said Stanley, "is Helen Paradise."
"Hell and Paradise?"
"Helen," he said slowly. "Hel-en. You've got the Paradise part right, though."
"You're kidding," I told him. "What kind of name is that?"
"French, I think. The name used to be Paradis." He pronounced it Paradee. "But then they came over here and changed it."
"Paradise," I said. "You're bloody joking."
"Paradise," he sighed again. "It's true."
"She's giving a lecture series at my uncle's club."
I gritted my teeth in anticipation of the tirade which usually followed the mention of Stanley's uncle.
The man's name was Henry Carton and he was president of the London Climbers' Club. Many years ago, Carton had made a name for himself as a mountaineer. He was best known for having scaled a previously unclimbed peak in the Alps and for nearly dying in the process.
It was Carton who had first drawn me and Stanley to climbing, and we were not the only ones. Few people had done as much as Carton to ensure the popularity of mountaineering,not only with those who climbed but also with those who had never, and would never, set foot in the mountains.
In Carton's day the act of climbing, particularly in the Alps, had been considered a rich man's sport. At the turn of the century, the cost of getting to the Alps, of purchasing climbing gear, of hiring porters and guides, and of securing membership in various mountaineering societies had kept it that way. The mountains were the province of the climbing elite. Above all, this elite was an English elite, and even if they were grudgingly forced to accept the French, Swiss, German, Austrian, and Italian climbers who made their way into the hills, and whose countries owned those mountains in the first place, one thing they would not tolerate was what they saw as the lower classes of their own society. Women, too, were frowned upon. Mountaineering clubs either barred them from membership or obliged them to wear full-length dresses when they were climbing.
By the 1930s, when Stanley and I started climbing, all that was changing fast. Women had discovered that they could scale mountains just as well as men, and had long ago discarded the recommended dresses for trousers instead. Travel to the Alps was no longer as costly as it had been, and mountaineering societies had dropped the requirement that only those who had been above twelve thousand feet could apply for membership.
Henry Carton had no use for the old elitism of the mountaineering establishment. "Social Climbers Climbing Socially," he called them. Climbing was for everyone, he maintained, and anyone who didn't climb had missed out on one of the greatest joys on this earth.
For a man who preached this sort of doctrine it was aparticular disappointment that his own nephew, who had once showed such promise as a mountaineer, should have given it up. Now these two men, who had once been mentor and protégé, regarded each other only with disgust.
The strain between them was made worse by the fact that, after the death of Stanley's father in September of 1945, only weeks after the end of the war, Stanley had quit the family meat-canning company and was looking forward to a leisurely existence of living off his inheritance. Unfortunately for Stanley, his father had anticipated this and, being a man of solid work ethics, had placed his brother Henry in charge of the inheritance. With this came the discretionary power to distribute the money to Stanley in whatever amounts Carton saw fit.
The result of this was that Stanley soon found himself employed as his uncle's assistant at the club. Here, Carton had calculated, he could not only keep an eye on his nephew but could also ensure that he earned an honest living.
"Is your uncle still making you miserable?" I asked Stanley, remembering the days when they had not hated each other quite so much.
"I should say he is," Stanley growled. "I'm not his assistant. I'm his bloody servant. He tells people I'm his Nitty Gritty Man and has me doing all the boring paperwork. Whenever I stick my head up from the accounts books, he starts making suggestions as to how I could better myself. I know that nothing would please him more than to hear I'd taken up mountaineering again. But he'd better not hold his breath, what little he's got of it. He may have talked me into climbing once, but I'm damned if he'll do it again."
Both Stanley and his uncle were equally obstinate. That was why I had no hope for any reconciliation between them.
"Why don't you just get another job?" I had asked him this question before, and he never liked answering it.
"I can't be bothered," he said.
But the truth was, and we both knew it, that his uncle did not work him very hard, and to earn as much as Carton paid him Stanley would have had to find a real job, with real hours and slim holidays. As it was, Stanley's efforts at the club were slack at best, no matter how hard Carton tried to push him. He kept irregular hours, took endless lunch breaks, and seemed to be under the impression that the Christmas holiday lasted until February. More than this, it seemed to me that the two men had grown so accustomed to being at each other's throats that they had, in a way, forgotten how to exist any differently.
"Look, you really haven't heard of her?" demanded Stanley, returning to the topic of his latest romance.
"What's her name again?" I asked.
"Helen Paradise. I told you."
I shrugged myself a little deeper into my chair. "I'd remember a name like that."
"You'd remember if you saw her, too." He held a wine bottle upside down over his glass, shaking the last drops from its dark green mouth. "I first spotted her when she came in to hear a lecture in the last series we had at the club. Well, then we happened to get talking--"
"You mean you threw yourself at her feet."
He ignored me. "--and then it turned out she was also a mountaineer and then she got invited to give the next lecture series."
"You mean you begged your uncle to let her give a talk."
"I didn't beg," he sniffed. "I just mentioned it to him as a possibility."
"How many times did you mention it?"
"As many as it took," he said exasperatedly. "Anyway, she's exactly my type."
"I don't know about your taste in women," I muttered. By this, I meant that I knew all too much about it. There had been several dismal and expensive failures. Many times I had accompanied Stanley and whatever woman had currently captured his heart to the fanciest restaurants in London: the Ash Grove, Tamesin's, and La Borsa. There were moments in those evenings when the sweat of witty banter was glistening on Stanley's forehead and I would catch the eye of these sad and beautiful women--they were always beautiful and always sad--and we would tell each other with a glance that this was not going to work. And while these glances were exchanged, Stanley would continue to ramble through his usual jokes, Adam's apple quivering in his throat like a bobber on a fishing line. It wasn't Stanley who made these women sad. They were sad before they met him and for reasons that had nothing to do with his feverish charm. Stanley and I referred to them as "Melancholy Angels," and often debated whether they were sad because they were so beautiful or whether their sadness was, in some twisted way, the very source of their loveliness.
Whatever the answer, Stanley was drawn helplessly to this sadness just as the women were drawn to his laughter and precariously punch-lined anecdotes, and his money, of which he had more than most people, despite his uncle's choke hold on the trust fund. The difference was that these women were drawn to him only in a transitory way, as a diversion from their sadness, and when they no longer found him diverting, they would leave. Stanley, on the other hand, lived in a world of perpetual hope in which true love was not a thing to be ridiculed and, if found, would last forever.
There were nights when Stan and I walked back to the club, having said good night to the woman, and I would dread the moment when he'd ask how I thought it had gone. We both knew exactly how it had gone, and Stanley would be in the process of what seemed to be one long exhaling of breath, as he slowly returned to himself. With me, he had no reason to be anything other than who he was, and if he had been this same person when he was with the ladies, they might have liked him better for it. Or perhaps the Melancholy Angels would have steered clear of him to begin with. But something clicked in him when he was trying to impress these ladies, and he became like a dancing bear, lumbering about on the stage, without reward, without dignity, without a chance.
I would never tell him it was useless. It was important to let Stanley decide that for himself. I would always say, "There are possibilities."
And so, for a while at least, he would bask in the glow of potential. It was what the French call l'extase langoureuse. An ecstasy of languishing.
The next day, or the day after, we would be talking about something completely different and Stanley would suddenly exclaim, "No, it's pointless."
Then I would know he had put away his dreams, at least with this particular woman. And as for the woman, we might see her again at some party, on the arm of some other languishing and grinning man. She was also languishing, but it had nothing to do with the men whose hearts she broke. What she languished for, no joke could mend, no bottle of champagne, no warmth of adoration.
"You must meet her," he said.
"I'd be happy to," I lied, because it was understood that I would lie.
"She's doing another lecture at the Climbers' Club tonight," he continued. "You could come along. I'll introduce you."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Your uncle and I haven't spoken in years."
"All the more reason for you to come! Besides, I don't need you to meet him. I need you to meet her."
"What sort of climbing has she done, anyway?"
"Well, she's just returned from photographing a lot of the mountains down in the Alps, including that one which is named after my uncle."
Carton's Rock, as it had been named, was a jagged pinnacle of stone and ice which rose almost sheer out of a glacier called La Lingua del Dragone, the Dragon's Tongue. It lay in a section of the Italian Alps known as the Val Antigorio, north of Turin, and jutting up towards the St. Gotthard Pass. The Dragone glacier covered a large area in the mountains west of the town of Formazza. It was here that Carton had found himself, in the summer of 1905, having taken a wrong turn at the village of Crevoladossola on his way down from Switzerland to Milan.
By the time he realized his mistake, he had traveled a considerable distance north along the only road which ran through the Antigorio Valley and stopped to spend the night in Formazza before retracing his steps towards Milan.
At a guesthouse in Formazza, Carton met another Englishman, whose intention had been to travel out across the Dragone glacier. Until that time, the glacier, and in fact the whole area around it, had received very few visitors. Bigger mountains and less dangerous glaciers could be found just across the border in Switzerland.
It had never been Carton's intention to go out on the ice. Until he met the Englishman, he had not even known of theglacier's existence. He had not intended to do any mountaineering on his trip, and had come to the Alps only on the advice of his doctor, as a cure for the asthma he'd had since childhood. After hearing the Englishman's description of the wild and barren landscape of the glacier, Carton grew curious. He would have remained merely interested if the Englishman had not revealed that he was suffering from gout and would not be able to make use of the guide he had hired. The Englishman kindly offered to let the guide take Carton instead, and even offered him the use of his mountaineering equipment.
Invigorated as much by the Englishman's stories as by the Alpine air, Carton accepted. The next day, instead of heading south on his original course, Carton traveled west along a dirt road to the village of Palladino; no more than a cluster of houses on the banks of a lake called Vannino. Palladino was the last outpost before the mountains, and the closest starting point for a voyage across the Dragone glacier.
At Palladino, Carton was met by the guide, who, after hearing Carton's explanation, agreed to take him instead.
At first light the following day, the two-man team set off.
Two weeks later, Carton staggered into Palladino alone, starving, snow-blind, with the skin sunburned off his nose and cheeks and his fingers so badly frostbitten that he spent a week with his hands in a bath of vinegar before he regained feeling in them.
The story he told was that after several days of grueling exertion over the ice of the Dragon's Tongue and up the Dragon's Teeth, the two men reached the tallest of these jagged peaks, shook hands, and started down again across the glacier. They were roped together, testing the snow ahead of them with their long ice axes. At some point on the descent, the guide fell through a thin patch of snow, beneath which lay acrevasse hundreds of feet deep. Carton was able to roll onto his stomach and jam his ax into the snow to provide an anchor. The ax caught fast in ice which lay beneath the snow, stopping his slide, but when the rope came taut it broke. The guide fell into the abyss, leaving Carton by himself up on the glacier. It took Carton seven days to find his way back to Palladino.
Despite an exhaustive search, the body of the guide was never found.
Having seen that glacier for myself, I knew how lucky Carton had been to survive. To call the glacier the Dragon's Tongue, and Carton's Rock the Dragon's Teeth, was no mistake.
When Carton returned to London, his hands bandaged and face still badly burned, he was front-page news in every paper in the country. Inspired by the unexpected attention, he rented out a small dance hall in Ealing and gave a lecture to a half-filled space about his experiences, which he titled "Peril in the Heights." It soon became clear that Carton knew very little about mountaineering, but this did not seem to matter. What mattered was that he had survived in spite of how little he knew. Even more important, he knew how to tell the story, hurling himself across the stage, flailing his arms in the air, retrieving from his ice-burned brain the most obscure but telling details.
The next week, he rented out the hall again. This time the place was full.
Throughout the months ahead, two, three, four times, the same people showed up to hear Carton describe the sight of the guide as he slipped away to his death. The eyes of the audience grew wide as he held up his hands and spoke of his frozen fingernails turning black and falling off, of the blood he coughed into the snow as the altitude punished his lungs.
Despite what he had endured, he always finished his talks by speaking of the view once he had arrived at the summit. He told his audience it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, like something out of a dream. This view, which only he had ever glimpsed and lived to tell of, since Carton's Rock remained unclimbed except by him and the unfortunate guide, became a thing of mythic beauty, beyond all earthly comparison.
In these lectures, Carton steered clear of formal mountaineering terminology, most of which would have been meaningless to his audience. Instead of verglas, for example, he said "icy rock." Instead of firnspiegel, he said "icy snow." Col became ridge, couloir became gully, and so on.
The lecture series went so well that the following year, after spending his summer traveling through the Alps, he rented a larger dance hall. The second year's lecture series, given twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday nights, was augmented with paintings of the Alps which Carton hung on easels on the stage. Wearing a tweed mountaineering suit and carrying an ice ax, he walked among these paintings as if he were the "Wild Huntsman" of German mythology.
The hall was always full.
I myself had been to see him, when he came to give a lecture in Oxford. I'd only gone because Stanley had nagged me and Stanley, who had never been to one of Carton's talks, had gone only because his uncle had promised him a free dinner at the Randolph Hotel afterwards.
If I had to name the single thing which first drew me to mountaineering, it would be the darkly resonant voice of Henry Carton. Even Stanley, who had almost turned into an art form his ability to remain unimpressed by everything he saw or heard or did, became swept up in the momentum of his uncle's words.
Carton spoke with such urgency that it seemed as if his very life depended on our seeing what he was trying to describe. He talked in epic phrases. Even the way he paused to catch his breath had something grand about it. Sometimes he clawed at the air, grasping for images like a man catching leaves as they fluttered to the ground before him. Other times, his head thrashed from side to side, as if the colors which vibrated in his head would burn through the bone casing of his skull if he did not set them free with words.
For Carton, the Alps were the ultimate proving ground. Up there, all that one could be and all that one was would become clear. Carton was the only man I had ever heard use the word honor who wasn't trying to sell me something. In the Alps, Carton told us, no climber could be sheltered by his wealth, or by his social connections, or his clever turns of phrase. In the mountains, you learned who you were, for better and for worse.
"There are those who climb," he said, "and those who dream of climbing. For some, the dream is all they need, and perhaps they are the lucky ones. But not all of us can be content with dreams alone. We are drawn up to the stony rafters of the world, like migrating animals who travel thousands of miles without knowing why they do this, only knowing that they must. Those who have been to these places know that they are not only worlds of rock and snow and ice. They are worlds of bleak but unforgettable beauty. To those who climb, the mountains are part of a dream, which we all have when we are young. It is the dream of wanting more than anything to know who you really are. The poet Friedrich von Schiller once wrote, 'Hold Fast to the Dreams of Your Youth.' This we must all do, or else we risk forgetting what it means to be alive."
Carton finished his lectures so exhausted that it was hard to imagine how he would ever be able to speak of the mountains again. But he did. Night after night, his energy never subsiding.
It wasn't long before he bought the dance hall outright and rebuilt it as his own club. Few of its members were actual climbers. The Climbers' Club had no membership criteria other than that people had to be interested in mountains or, failing that, at least interested in Carton.
Carton also gave private lectures, in which he guaranteed to reveal information "too horrific" for his regular audiences. For this, he charged extraordinary amounts of money and never revealed the names of those people who received the private lectures. He also swore these private audiences to secrecy, forbidding them to disclose the "terrifying facts" kept hidden from the regular audiences. Because no one knew who these private audiences were, the rumors surrounding their identities soon included most of the famous people in Britain, including the royal family. And because swearing a group of people to secrecy was a virtual invitation to gossip, more rumors emerged concerning the "facts."
This was, of course, exactly what Carton had hoped for.
One story was that Carton had discovered the remains of an actual dragon frozen in the ice and had shown his high-paying audience one of its teeth. Another story was that Carton had been guided back to safety by the ghost of a mountaineer who had died on the Dragon's Tongue over a century before. Carton never admitted to any of these, but he never denied them, either, so the rumors flourished.
Carton was a force of nature, so much larger than life that he became, in the eyes of his audiences, as mystical a presence as the mountains he described.
His only critic was a man named Joseph Pringle. Pringle was a small, slope-shouldered man with big ears and impossibly small eyes. He rarely smiled, and his fashion sense had come to a halt some fifty years before. His clothes were almost exclusively black, and instead of a tie, or any modern concept of a tie, he wore a large floppy neck scarf knotted into a bow. The neck scarf shambled off down his front and across the lapels of his heavy woolen coat, which buttoned all the way up to the throat but on which only the top button was fastened.
Pringle had spent many years climbing, particularly in the Alps, and had several first ascents to his name. Like Carton, Pringle had originally been sent to the Alps by a Harley Street doctor, although in Pringle's case in the hopes of curing chronic eczema. Pringle's eczema remained unchanged, but he fell in love with the Alps and soon became what was known as a "peak bagger," obsessed with being the first to climb as many mountains as he could. One story often told about Pringle was that while vacationing in Turin, he read about a man who was attempting a small but unclimbed peak in the Cottian Alps near Monte Viso. Unable to rein in his competitiveness, Pringle decided he would get there first and steal the prize of first ascent. He raced up to the mountains, half-killed himself climbing the peak, and when he returned, ready to gloat about his victory, learned that this unnamed man attempting the climb was, in fact, himself.
But Pringle was old now and his days of climbing were over. He had instead become a curator of sorts. Throughout his life, the man had gathered thousands of pages of information about the Alps. He subscribed to every mountaineering journal and read every book on the subject of climbing. Few of these escaped his criticism. There was almost always some error which required a letter from him to the editor demanding acorrection. For example, if a climber spoke of having been able to see Monte Rosa from the summit of the Breithorn on a certain day, Pringle would consult the weather bulletins, all of which he had saved, and if the bulletin had indicated cloud, he would be sure to send a scathing letter discrediting the climber's claim.
Pringle's appearance at a lecture on the subject of Alpinism would send a shudder of dismay through any unfortunate speaker walking out onstage. During the lecture, Pringle would take notes on a miniature chalkboard which he carried with him. The tapping and scratching of the chalk on the board was enough to ruin anybody's concentration. At the end, when the floor was opened for questions, Pringle's stubby arm would be the first to rise.
He was so nitpicky in his fact-checking, and so blunt in his delivery of the truth, that Pringle had managed to make enemies of almost everyone in the climbing community. Most people were too terrified to speak ill of him. He had made a business of ruining reputations, and it was with particular energy that he set about ruining Carton's.
For Pringle, the disregarding of a fact was a personal insult. Facts were for him the most beautiful of all things, as hard and precious as diamonds. But for Carton, that diamond fact was a thing to be held up to the light, to be twisted and turned and examined for its angle of greatest interest. And if he believed that the fact might be of better use to him if it was held up in just such a way, or turned even slightly, to achieve that particular wide-eyed look of wonder--part horror, part fascination, part incredulity--he would make it so. Each summer he returned from the Alps with new and hair-raising stories for his audiences.
He also accumulated a collection of artifacts which hadbeen expelled from glaciers. Anything which fell down a crevasse would, sooner or later, be tombed in ice and carried through to the glacier's end. The movement of these glaciers had been studied enough that when something, or someone, disappeared down a crevasse, it could often be predicted to within a year or two when that thing or person would reappear.
Carton established contacts among the Society of Alpine Guides and quietly bought up the relics of mountaineering disasters. These included ice axes, clearly marked to men whose lives had ended decades before and whose bodies had never been found. He purchased the bones of Alpine cave bears, which had been extinct for thousands of years. There were shreds of clothing, spewed out in slow motion by the ice; their tattered edges seemed to prove the violent ends of those who had once worn them.
And then there was Archie.
One year, thirteen members of the Climbers' Club were invited to a Saturday lunch in the club's dining room. There was some uneasiness as to why Carton would have chosen thirteen people, when the superstition attached to the number still meant that hotels did not have a thirteenth room, that hunting parties never comprised thirteen people, and that you did not invite thirteen people to a luncheon.
The guests arrived to find fourteen places laid for dinner.
Who was the fourteenth guest? they asked.
Carton would not say.
Just as the meal was about to begin, Carton rang a small brass bell and the waiters wheeled in something that caused two people, both of them men, to faint.
It was a skeleton sitting in a chair. The bones had been wired together and then strapped to the chair, but not before it had been dressed in a gray suit with a red tie bearing a whiteskull-and-crossbones design. The skeleton had been wired in such a way that its arms were folded across its chest. This, combined with the grinning teeth, served to give Archie a cheerful and irreverent expression, much like Carton himself.
Carton never disclosed exactly where the skeleton had come from, saying only that he'd picked it up in the Alps and that it had been found near a glacier.
The skeleton bore no signs of identity and the clothes had been added later, so it was impossible to say who the person had been, although one guest, who was a doctor, did confirm that the skeleton belonged to a man.
Once again, rumors circulated. The most persistent of these was that the body had been stolen from the old morgue in the hospice of the Great St. Bernard Pass. There, the bodies of those who had become lost in the mountains were gathered to await identification. Because of the dry air and the fact that many of these bodies were never claimed, some had become mummified. Even though Carton had never seen the place, he described it in vivid detail to his audiences, based on stories he had himself been told.
Pringle wrote Carton a letter that began, "You Brute!" and listed the names of forty vanished mountaineers whose skeleton Archie might be. Carton had the letter framed and hung it in the men's bathroom at the club.
Soon after, Archie was moved to the head of the table and the Saturday lunches developed into a regular event. At these lunches, Archie would be toasted by the guests, who always numbered thirteen. Carton drank to Archie from a battered pewter mug engraved with the initials E.B. This had emerged from a glacier near Trélatête and almost certainly belonged to the infamous guide Emil Boileau. Although it had never been proven, Boileau was said to have murdered several of theclimbers who had hired him in the early 1800s. He would lead them high into the mountains, to places from which they would never be able to return without his help. Then he would demand money, which, if not paid out immediately, would result in the deaths and disappearance of the climbers. Boileau drank heavily, even when climbing. According to legend, he would throw the bodies of the climbers he had killed down bottomless crevasses and toast them with a tankard full of brandy. His own end came when he found himself unable to kill a particularly beautiful young woman. He became so deranged that he threw himself down the crevasse instead, tankard and all. The tankard, bruised by its journey through the shifting glacier ice, emerged almost a century after Boileau's death, and was immediately acquired by Carton. How much truth there was in the story of Emil Boileau didn't matter to Carton. What mattered was the legend.
Thousands flocked to Carton's lectures, hoping for a glimpse of Archie, who was sometimes sitting behind Carton on the stage, sometimes appeared after the intermission, and sometimes could be found in the front row of the audience.
Membership in the Climbers' Club tripled.
Archie became, in the words of Carton, "the most popular man in London. And the thinnest." People posed for pictures beside him. Carton took to swinging his arm around Archie in the middle of the meal, squinting out at the dinner guests and remarking, "Well, Archie, what do you think of the view?"
The greater Carton's popularity became, the more he added to his shows. He brought in blond, blue-eyed "Alpine maidens" in traditional costume. The fact that these women never spoke but only smiled led to some speculation as to whether the maidens were actually from the Alps, although no one truly cared. Nor did they care when the Saint Bernard dogsCarton brought in turned out to be boxers, or even when the stuffed and tattered bird which he claimed was the last of the dreaded baby-snatching lammergeier vultures in the Alps turned out to be of a more common variety.
It was all about the show, and if the show was sometimes short on fact, Carton made up for it with the energy he put into his presentations. He reenacted not only his own ascent of the Dragon's Teeth but also many other mountaineering epics, in particular those which involved some loss of life. These included the notorious Hamel expedition to Mont Blanc, which ended in the deaths of three men who were caught in an avalanche. He also gave his own interpretation of Whymper's 1865 ascent of the Matterhorn and the subsequent deaths of four of its members. He would stand on his toes, grasping at imaginary rock holds, hauling up make-believe companions at the end of invisible ropes, pausing only to wipe genuine sweat from his forehead.
Carton's next venture, a plan to lead an expedition back to the Dragon's Teeth, was cut short by a bout of pneumonia that ruined his already asthma-scarred lungs. After that, he had trouble even climbing the stairs of his club. Although the lecturing continued, his mountaineering days were over. The strain began to show on Carton's face and in his voice. Carton's talks were filled with awkward silences as he fought for breath.
By the time he hired Stanley, the Climbers' Club had begun its slow decline.
Nowadays Carton usually invited other mountaineers, like Hell and Paradise, to do the speaking for him.
Stanley was still going on about her. "She gave me a look, and I looked right back!" He pointed a finger at his eyes, as if the force of her glance had left a gash across his pupils. "And I tell you something happened. Now she is all I can think about.We've been out to lunch several times. We've had picnics in Hyde Park. She's fascinating. Everything she says is just brilliant, and the photographs are pretty amazing, too. Some of them are on display at the club. You've just got to come and meet her."
I glanced out the window, hoping for some inspiration that would provide me with an excuse not to go. But there was only the brick facade of the bank on the opposite side of the road, and the space between sieved by gently falling rain. There was a grayness in the air, which made the moisture seem less like rain than a failing of my sight.
"Don't try and get out of it," said Stanley, reading my mind. "I want to know what you think of her."
I heard a clock chime quietly in another room. After waiting out the count, I turned to him. "No, Stanley," I said, "you don't."
His eyebrows arched. "I don't?"
"No," I told him, doing my best to put aside the comfortable beehive hum of the wine inside my head, "you don't want to know what I think of her. You want me to tell you what she thinks of you."
Stanley breathed out sharply through his nose. "I suppose you could say that." Then he held open his hands and smiled as if to say, "So we are agreed."
"I didn't say I'd come along. Besides, does this woman know you don't climb anymore?"
He brushed my words aside. "Once she's got to know me a bit, the old charm will kick in and she won't care if I do or not."
It occurred to me that the only person on whom Stanley's old charm had worked was himself, and the only thing which had been charmed was his belief that he actually had any. Withwomen, anyway. I might have told him this, seeing as he had just spoiled our weekly booze-up, but it was at this moment that my entire world began, very slowly, to fall apart. It began when I heard the whispered name of a man I hadn't seen in years.
"It's Wally Sugden!" hissed a voice.
"Just about to leave for Patagonia!" said another.
"Sugden's at the Montague!"
"I thought he'd given up his membership."
"Who cares? Let's give it back to him."
The whole club filled with these admiring whispers, which echoed through the bar and through the sitting room, up the stairs, and into the guest rooms where no one ever stayed.
At the mention of Sugden's name, the breath caught in my throat and I felt sick. The memory of him was tied, as if by tiny threads, to all the other memories I had been trying so hard to forget. Now I sat with teeth clenched, trying to remain in control, and praying that those other nightmares did not come tumbling one after the other from every darkened corner of my brain.
A member of the close-knit group of mountaineers at Oxford, which had included Stanley and me, Sugden was the only one who had continued to climb. Since the war, he had gone on expeditions to the Himalayas, the Rockies, the Jotunheimen mountains of Norway, and now was on his way to Patagonia. He had become a national hero; many believed he was Britain's best shot since George Mallory and Sandy Irvine for reaching the summit of Everest.
He had parlayed this hero status into a wildly successful car dealership.
The Evening Tribune often carried ads which featured a picture of Sugden in his climbing gear, complete with goggles,boots, and a coil of rope across his shoulders, standing alongside the latest model auto. Beneath this picture were the words "Trust in the Man. Trust in the Machine."
Now the sight of Wally Sugden, who once hung around the Montague but had not been seen here in years, astonished everyone. Everyone except Stanley, anyway.
Despite the fact that he and Stanley had gone to the same school, once climbed together, and were members of the same club, each represented the polar opposite of the other.
Sugden was a square-faced, broad-shouldered man with slightly squinting eyes that told you he meant business and a perpetual smirk, which made you feel as if you had to choose your words carefully when speaking. He had been extremely popular at school. At Eton, he was captain of every team he played on, and he played on almost every team. He also possessed the kind of unshakable confidence that assured him of success. Sugden had been senior prefect in my house at Eton, where he'd developed the annoying habit of wandering into my room, whether I was there or not, and eating all the food in my cupboard. I often found him sitting with his feet up on my desk, shaking the last crumbs from a packet of chocolate-covered biscuits down his throat.
I more or less put up with this because Sugden seemed to have no idea he was doing anything objectionable and it would have been considerably more work trying to explain this to him than to go out and get a new packet of biscuits.
Stanley, by contrast, was captain of nothing. He had the intelligence to be top of every class but, as if on principal, never was. He was also athletic, but stubbornly refused to be a "team player" in soccer, rowing, or rugby, sports which occupied the majority of our school year. As a result, he was relegatedto the lowest teams and regarded with suspicion by people like Wally Sugden
I recalled Stanley leaning against a goalpost on a soccer pitch reserved for teams made up entirely of people who either couldn't or, like Stanley, wouldn't play. This field was kept out of the public view, behind a thick bramble hedge down by the river. The masters who refereed the matches were kindred spirits to these players. They began the games late, finished them early, and allowed the halftime break to last forever. Sometimes the ball would get kicked into the hedge, at which point both teams would become embroiled in a philosophical discussion about who should go in and get it.
There were times I envied their lack of ambition, while out on fields with names like Agar's Plough and Dutchman's, people like Sugden and me engaged in ruthless competition, as if our very lives depended on the outcome.
There were several of Stanley's former teammates at the Montague. Most of them were too intelligent for their own good, and the majority, unlike Sugden, had failed to make their way in society. It was most likely because of this that Sugden had stopped coming to the Montague. He considered himself to be in a different league.
But now Sugden stood with his arms outstretched and a huge grin on his face, waiting until he had attracted adequate attention before saying whatever he had come to say. From the glazed look in his eyes, it was clear he had been drinking heavily.
Long after the others in the room had stopped what they were doing, in anticipation of Sugden's announcement, Stanley continued to chat, refusing to play the man's game and despising the others for their shameless adulation of a man like Sugden.
At last Sugden spoke. "I," he boomed, "have returned!"
The room burst into applause.
"And I just wanted to stop by and see the old crew before I head off to Patagonia."
More applause. Some people even cheered.
"And I also wanted to tell you that I have, prior to my departure, fortified myself at that Greek restaurant across the road by eating an entire plate of testicles!"
These words produced the most profound silence that I had ever heard descend upon the club. Even late at night, when the place was almost empty, and the last of the dozing members were snoozing in their chairs, you could hear more in the snuffling breaths and ticking of clocks than you heard after Sugden made his comment about the testicles.
Even Stanley fell silent. Then, with a defeated sigh, he turned to face the man, who still stood with his arms open, welcoming the astonishment of the masses. "Whose?" asked Stanley in a frosty voice.
Sugden lowered his arms. "Oh, it's you," he said, unable to hide his irritation.
Stanley gave him a cheeky little wave.
"I should have known I'd find you skulking about in here," said Sugden.
"So are you going to tell us who these testicles belonged to or not?" demanded Stanley.
"A sheep, I suppose. How should I know?" Sugden already seemed to be regretting his appearance at the club.
"They were unlikely to have belonged to a sheep," remarked Stanley.
"A goat perhaps," said Sugden. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters to the goat," replied Stanley. "Were they fried?Or baked? Or pickled? Or did you just gnaw them off some unsuspecting member of the animal kingdom?"
Sugden forced a smile back onto his face. He turned away from Stanley and continued with his story, addressing the others in the room. "They were on the menu. The chef had them written down as 'A Feast of the Gods.' I asked what was in this feast of his, but he tried to fob me off on something made with cucumbers."
"If they were in fact cucumbers," said Stanley.
Sugden ignored this. "So I said to him, Look here, Themistocles, you've got this thing on the menu and I want to try it, so bring me out this Godly Feast and I'll have a go at it. Well, after much babbling in the kitchen they bring me out a plate of these testicles. Fried and all sliced up."
There was a collective wincing in the room.
"But did you know what they were?" asked Stanley, the frost in his voice giving way to genuine disbelief.
"Not at first, but then the waiter told me."
"I'd have shot him," said Stanley.
"More than once, sir," added Barber in a shaky voice.
"When he told me," explained Sugden, twisting one hand in the air, "well I just thought, You've gone this far, you might as well finish the job. So I ate the lot. And I tell you, they were marvelous. They give you strength, apparently. They'll even cure you if you're ill. What do you think of that?" he called across to Stanley, convinced he now had the upper hand.
"I have never yet exclaimed 'Heavens to Betsy,'" replied Stanley, "but I feel the time is fast approaching."
At that moment Sugden caught sight of me. The angle of my chair had almost kept me hidden. His already squinting eyes narrowed even further.
Now the sickness I had felt before grew so strong that I could barely breathe. The reason he had such an effect on me was simple.
Sugden and I were the only survivors of one of the worst mountaineering disasters to take place during the war. As leader of that group, I had been cleared of wrongdoing by a board of inquiry. The board was by headed by none other than Henry Carton, who even saw to it that I was awarded a medal. But as far as Wally Sugden was concerned, the blame for what went wrong still lay upon me. No board of inquiry or medal on my chest could change Sugden's mind, and the fact that I no longer climbed only strengthened his conviction.
In truth, Sugden was right. I did blame myself for what happened. It didn't matter if the army had acquitted me, because I could not acquit myself. I had been over it a thousand times in my head and even if I could not imagine making different decisions than the ones I'd made, I had still made them and those men, who had been some of my closest friends, had still died. Even the thought of it was more than I could bear, so I had imprisoned all those memories deep in the dungeons of my brain. That was why I no longer climbed. I knew that the feel of the ropes, the sound of hidden streams beneath the rocks, the scrabble of boots over wet stone, and the pain in my fingers from gripping tiny ledges would bring those memories back into the light. Then I would become their prisoner, and not the other way around.
I had tried to convince myself that I'd put the whole business behind me, and that those images had perished in their walled-in prison cells. But the sight of Wally Sugden, and the dread it woke inside, told me the pictures were still alive, still dangerous, scrabbling at the walls as they attempted to escape.
Sugden had finally had enough of Stanley's jibes. "I waswondering," he said in a voice everyone could hear, "whether you and your friend might like to come along."
"Come along where?" asked Stanley.
"Why, to Patagonia of course!"
The blood drained out of Stanley's face. He tried without success to assume an air of nonchalance. "We don't climb anymore," he said casually. "We are the--"
"'The Society of Former Mountaineers,'" said Sugden. "Yes, I know what you call yourselves. But why bother with such a long name when one word would do to sum it up?"
Everyone knew what that one word was meant to be. Sugden was calling us cowards.
This time Stanley had no answer for him.
Sugden turned away and smiled and faced the room. "I'll see you when I get back!" he shouted triumphantly.
Another burst of applause. Now the room became very lively.
In the midst of this, I stepped out to get some air. The once-happy thrumming of the red wine had now become an annoyance. I wanted it to go away. I muttered something to myself about the world getting itself all back-to-front, and the reason for my going into the Montague being to escape from the very confusion that I was now leaving the club to avoid.
I stood there on the sidewalk, as men and women stepped past me on their way home from work. Raincoats swished about their knees and umbrellas tilted down over their faces. The sound of their shuffling feet merged with the rumble of passing cars.
I looked down the avenue, mesmerized by the silver lights of oncoming vehicles and the red dots of taillights from cars speeding in the opposite direction. In the murky dusk, the glow of those lights linked together until they became like twonecklaces, one of pearls and one of rubies, laid side by side across the grayness of the city.
The sight of it unsettled me, but I could not understand why. Everywhere around me, colors began to throb. Solid objects rippled, transforming themselves into nightmarish creatures. I realized I was sweating. The evening breeze cooled the moisture on my face, but instead of soothing me, it felt as if my skin were being eaten away. My vision tunneled, then snapped back to normal and slowly began tunneling again. Everything began to fall apart, as if the entire planet had suddenly come loose from its path across the universe. The comfortable world I thought I knew was sliding away into darkness. I felt myself carried along with it, like a passenger on the deck of a sinking ship.
The next thing I knew, I was lying in the street.
The old woman was staring down at me. Pale, inquisitive faces clustered behind her.
Beyond them, raindrops fell from the twilight sky.
"Is he dead?" the woman asked.
"No," I replied. "He is not."
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BY PAUL WATKINS ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.