Tuesday, June 16, 2020

"Gladys" (5)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

Then, abruptly recovering her poise, she held out her hand to two new guests, who inclined their heads over her ringed fingers.

Moonlight on Lake Geneva, a painting by Albert Gos

I have to confess that I felt myself slightly thrown by this strange confession, from a socialite who had just pronounced anathema on all her caste. And also by the oddly insouciant way she’d invited me to join her on a climb of the Täschhorn via the Teufelsgrat, one of the longest, most arduous ascents anywhere in the Alps. This too took me aback, although I was willing to believe she was serious about her offer. After all, why shouldn’t she be? A woman with a climbing record like hers could not be expected to behave like all the rest. So she must have been in earnest.

The Countess introduced me to her acquaintances. At once, I recognised one of them as the monocle-wearing officer, the Countess’s companion from the previous day’s exhibition at the Alpine Club.

“This is my cousin,” she said, “Captain Hugh McPherson.”

As the Countess struck up a conversation with the other guest, the officer turned to me. “I am quite sure, sir,” he began, "that you were talking about mountains with my fair cousin. I could see that look on her face, sick as a palsied parrot, that she has whenever she gets back from a season in Switzerland, but she’ll get over it by and by. What a strange creature she is; it’s a pity really! You're a mountaineer too, no doubt?”

“Yes, sir, a mountaineer and a passionate devotee of mountain beauty.”

“Well, that goes for my cousin too. I could understand it if she was a man, but she’s a woman! And why her, of all things? She affects to be tired of society balls or theatre-goings, and yet she’s the life and soul of the party wherever she goes. She's one of the prettiest, most elegant young women in society, and (here he leaned towards me) would you believe it, a perfect wife too. No affairs, nothing. But her thing for mountains; it’s too bad, really. Besides, her husband shares her alpine obsession. That's it, really, they love each other. So she’s got no time for admirers! Though this too could be some sort of pose, like any other, even if it gets a special twist from my cousin’s ardent and poetic nature. Women! What funny things they are!”

The conversation rattled on in this light-hearted manner. All the same, I read in Captain McPherson’s remarks another tribute to the Countess's virtues. His revelations strengthened my faith in her, confirmed my admiration.

At this moment, the Earl appeared, accompanied by somebody who looked like a musician. “Madam," said this person obsequiously, "won’t you play for us tonight? A bit of Chopin, perhaps?”

Seeming not to hear, the Countess said, “Oliver, I've invited this man to climb the Teufelsgrat on the Täschhorn with us, in July.”

“Did you, indeed?” the Earl replied in a matter-of-fact way. “I hope you don’t mind? It should be a pleasant tour. We both of us adore your country. Did I not hear that you and your brothers climbed a new route on the Aiguille Verte, but where did it go exactly?”

“Countess,” the artist beseeched her, “the nocturne in F sharp minor, the one that Pugno played at the Queen's Hall.”

“Huh!" exclaimed the officer, adjusting his monocle and looking at his pretty cousin, “I'll wager twenty pounds that after you get up your Devil’s Ridge or whatever, you’ll get a column in the Times, an article in the Alpine Journal and your picture in the Illustrated News. I’ll say it again – it’s just a pose, even if it’s one that not every girl can indulge in. Let’s just say, Gladys, that you have a very individual way of expressing yourself. Well, I take my hat off to you.”

She waved her impertinent cousin away and asked if I liked music. Very much, I replied.

“Would that be Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Debussy?” she enquired. I confessed a distinct inclination towards Bach, that master of the well-tempered harpsichord. She smiled.

“Me too," she said, "but we can’t play him here, you know. Oliver, do you remember, Olivier, that sweet young girl at the Couttet hotel in Chamonix? How she played that eighth andante, and to listen to it the night we got back from eight days in the mountains. How beautiful it was, and how it suited our mood. Now, if you like, I'll play you the Moonlight Sonata.”

At this moment, her expression changed, as if she was already thinking through the piece she was about to interpret. And, suddenly sombre, she walked away on the musician’s arm.

The Countess Gladys played for us in a sort of penumbra. She liked to wrap her music in mystery and, by this simple device, to prolong the entrancement of our rapt souls.

The chandeliers had been put out. Only a few torches flickered here and there, reflected and diffused in the dark depths of the mirrors. A shimmering figure seated at the black bulk of the piano, the Countess played a few chords, silencing the hum of last conversations with her first few arpeggios. She held her audience in thrall, as if hypnotised. A breath of air wafted in through an open window, stirring a spray of white roses against a buttress. One could hear the petals fall, all but imperceptibly.

Then the notes of the immortal adagio rang limpidly through the room’s dusky recesses. Against the crepuscular backing of the chords, the melody stood out in a soft, serene and harmonious clarity, like some ancient bas-relief on a marble frieze. Evanescent, unhurried and unfailingly measured, the notes flowed and rippled away, borne up by the swell and ebb of the bass, which seemed to lend or soften its voice to bring out the composition’s full beauty. Reaching the final allegretto, the last notes died away. The pianist’s outstretched arms fell back inert. The Countess lowered her head, rested her hand on her knees, and slumped as if she was in pain - or in some radiant trance.

Stunned by this extraordinary conclusion, the audience sank into an even deeper state of contemplation, a more gratifying tribute than any sudden burst of applause. No facile compliments were murmured; nobody for an instant thought of clapping. In this timeless moment, we were abashed to silence.

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

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