Monday, July 20, 2020

"Gladys" (9)

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

No one replied, but we saw a flake of ice shining in the small of her back, embedded in the flesh, that seemed to rise and fall all but imperceptibly. Gladys was breathing!

The Matterhorn at sunrise, a painting by Albert Gos
Opening her mouth, which was frighteningly slack, we poured brandy down her throat. Her complexion was completely white. Her nostrils didn’t twitch, her eyes stayed closed and her ears frozen white. The expression of sheer terror on her face spoke eloquently of the torments she’d endured. It was the grimace of a corpse. We tried in vain to lift her leaden weight: the ice had welded Gladys to the glacier, as if they were one and the same thing.

This was ghastly. To release her from that monstrous embrace, and to avoid hurting her, we had to patiently dig her icy body out of the snow that gripped it and to cut away her tresses. Then we set her down on a blanket, putting a coil of rope under her head, and started to rub her down with alcohol. The clots of snow on her started to melt, all too slowly.

What grim and dismal work this was. And what a picture we must have made, we three men, silently kneeling on the glacier around this lifeless figure, half unrobed, under the flickering light of the lanterns hanging from our ice axes! The light reflected in glints from her golden tresses, mingling in the snow, amid a patch of darkness, a remnant of beauty abandoned to the glacier.

A hint of dawn started to flow around the horizon, projecting the outline of the ridges more clearly against the sky. And as if climbing back from death to life, in a kind of trance, Gladys opened her eyes under the fading stars.

For ten months after this hazardous rescue, Gladys made a slow recovery from pneumonia with complications, hovering a long while between life and death. She came close to losing her frost-bitten feet and hands, but in the end only the little finger of her right hand had to be amputated. On medical advice, the Earl set out with his wife for the island of Ceylon. Only there could the sun finally triumph over the fatal malady she’d contracted in the icy grip of the Tiefenmatten Glacier.

Towards the middle of the following spring, a letter from Gladys reassured me that she had made a good recovery and gave me a rather remarkable account of that terrible night on the glacier. As it documents her state of mind at that time, it might be worthwhile for me to reproduce the letter here, to accompany the above outline of the story of her first accident:

Kandy (Ceylon), Spring 19...

My dear friend, you will doubtless be surprised to receive this letter instead of the promised impressions of our trip to the Temple of the Moon Festival; but let that be as it may. Oliver says you would be interested, and that I should have written about this a long time ago. He may be right. But, you know, I still feel uneasy about this shred of the past, and I’m somehow reluctant to revisit it. Sometimes, I can’t stop this sense of dread overtaking me, and dark images come back to torment me, before subsiding into the depths of whatever subconscious lurks beneath our souls. And then, leaving the sense of dread aside, there is my right hand, my poor little finger, as a hideous reminder.

Alas! I can’t get used to this mutilation, and I have stopped playing the piano for good and all. Sometimes I used to forget myself, but suddenly one note or other wouldn’t play. Then I remembered, but those were dreadful moments and I burst into tears at the keyboard. Then the doctors said I shouldn’t practise anymore because of my nerves, and I did as I was told. I feel like I’ve reached the summit of my life’s trajectory, and now I’m rapidly slipping down the descending arc. 

But let me return to the accident. How can I talk to you about it when, around me, bamboos and palm fronds rustle in the musky airs of this Hindu land? Isn’t it some nightmare that I am about to summon up? My husband told you about our fall. So you have already heard how an avalanche took us in the Penhall Couloir, carrying us down onto the Tiefenmatten glacier, at the foot of the Z’mutt face.

Lifted by a wave of snow, I slid on my back, arms crossed, while the cataract burst around me. Then nothing. Oblivion. When I came to, I found myself alone in the rubble of the avalanche. Crushed by the silence, battered and half buried, I couldn’t grasp what had happened, so much did the horror of the situation dull my senses and, feeling my whole body float away as if under the sway of an anaesthetic, I fainted again. From then on until I regained consciousness, thanks to you, at the end of that tragic night, my mind was so shattered by the fall, exhaustion and shock that it was taken over by some sort of hallucination.

This is what I saw: I was lying limply in a meadow at the foot of a cherry tree in full bloom. The sky was a pure blue and the sun projected onto the green grass the oval shadow of the tree with its exquisite white blossoms. A silver-glinting stream meandered away between mossy banks. Suddenly, by some sleight that seemed perfectly natural to me, another blossoming tree appeared, and then three, four, five, and five and six more, until the previously empty meadow was full of trees. 

Now it was a shimmering vault of white and pink flowers, all under the tender blue of the sky. A delicious freshness wafted from the snowy branches; the flowers were filled with an enervating sweetness, while their petals, as if freighted with dreams, slowly floated away down the stream. I was bemused by this feast of light, of smells, of flowers and colours. A voluptuous numbness flowed through me. It was enchanting just to be alive.

Yet, I didn’t feel alone. Someone else was lying not far from me, someone who was like a stranger to this landscape that I alone could see. I could sense this presence without being able to define it. But who was with me in this paradise? Who was there? I wanted to know, but I could not. As if half asleep, and in spite of some hidden urge to regain consciousness, I was all but unable to respond, almost drowning in this intoxicating torpor. My willpower was slipping away, my thinking became drowsier and drowsier, washing away any shreds of energy that I could summon to make the mental efforts to find out...

Suddenly, the illusion vanished. I no longer felt this presence weighing on my delirious imagination; that enigmatic somebody was no longer there and I found myself alone in the enchanting meadow. And suddenly the light of the sun reddened. A ruddy glare now lit the white blossoms. The blue sky gave way to a leaden one, streaked with long pale plumes. The air caught fire, choking me. The meadow turned red, withering the blossoms and parching the waters of the stream under the desiccated trees. 

Astonished even more by this unaccustomed heat than by the landscape’s sudden transformation – nothing surprises one in a dream, does it? – I begin to strip off my clothes. A pink flame stretches out towards me, burning. I have to escape, run somewhere, to breathe, to cool myself ... but find myself rooted to the spot, transfixed by this searing pink flame; and to escape it I’m stripping off my clothes to the waist. I throw out my arms to push it back, but expose my whole front to the flame. A sensation of heat sears through me, unbelievably brutal. No more than half-aware in my unconsciousness, I somehow sense that this flame, although no hotter than before, has wrapped itself, coiled itself around me, crushing me...

I want to struggle, I claw, I bite, but my strength gives out at once, paralysing me. I choke as the noose tightens. I want to scream, but no sound comes out of my throat. The noose tightens, tightens, crushing me. Then I have the distinct sensation that, in the midst of my swoon, I am fainting away.

When I opened my eyes again, you were bending over me by the light of lanterns and in the dark of night. I have often tried to explain this nightmare to myself, which is more of a hallucination than a dream. A friend of ours from here, an officer that I’ve talked about it, told me that in the course of a geographical expedition to the mountains of Kashmir, he experienced something quite similar. Exhausted, at the end of his tether, he fell asleep on his feet while staggering through the scree of a moraine. A phantasmagorical landscape appeared in front of him, obliterating the real world so completely that he forgot who his companions were and even his own name. He called this a “paranormal mirage”. In explaining my own “paranormal mirage”, I feel it’s simpler to call it a “landscape of lies”.

The white blossoms can only recall the snow that passed over my retina during the fall. As for the rest of the scenery, that must have been dreamed up by my hallucinating mind. You can imagine what sort of physical and mental state I was in after being avalanched all the way down from the Z’mutt ridge. The presence that I couldn’t recognise, that must have been Oliver lying next to me; and I started to feel alone when he went off by himself. The crimson sun reddening the white blossoms was surely a kind of transformation of the setting sun’s glare on the snowy flanks of the Dent d’Hérens – which I somehow picked up on. Just then, in a fit of madness brought on by the fever, I no doubt started to strip off my clothing. And, immediately, the snow touching my skin brought about the burning sensation corresponding to the pink flame. You can imagine how this terrifying drama should have ended, the struggle of a crazed, half-naked woman, struggling in the grip of the snow at the bottom of a remote glacier, and slowly freezing to death.

And then this postscript, by way of a preface to her impending doom: “We plan to return to England, via Genoa and the Alps next July. (Alas, this time without a climb!) But Courmayeur might tempt us. Could we meet up there?”

Alas, no, my dear and precious friend, never were we able to meet again, except at your little grave nestling in the shadow of the glaciers. Wounded on the Matterhorn and fallen on Mont Blanc. Poor Gladys. My imagination, darkened at first, brightens again as your luminous memory blossoms in me.

And I try to imagine that you died amid the struggle and exaltation of achieving some high peak, just as you liked them, real or allegorical. I remember you, Gladys, on that radiant morning, on the snowy heights of the Teufelsgrat, silent and ecstatic, when those words came to your lips – and now I repeat them on the other side of your tomb: “And you, ye Mountains, why are ye beautiful?”


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.


Iainhw said...

Thank you for translating and posting. I hope you will treat us to more of these tales.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Thanks for reading, Iain. Given the reader stats (and most of them from nefarious parties such as Vampirestat), I was about to kick this series into touch. But, then again, the still untranslated third story is the one that, according to a distinguished alpine historian, "greatly perturbed the guides of Zermatt". So, heck, yes, I'll post one more in the coming months ...