We had been sitting round the fire for barely an hour, smoking our pipes, when all of a sudden we were surprised to hear a strange noise. It sounded as if some animal, attracted by the glow of the bivouac, had paused in its tracks, startled after sniffing a human spoor.
|Engraving of the Valsorey environs|
Image courtesy of the Cantonal and University Library of Lausanne (Viaticalps)
We sensed an invisible presence. Something was spying on us, watching us – we didn’t know how, but we could feel it. The same sixth sense made us turn towards the opening. We saw nothing but the night and the streaks of snowflakes wavering in the fleeting light of the campfire. A chamois, somebody said.
But no chamois could have been there, so late on a snowy night like this one!
We strained our ears in vain; the noise did not come again. Even so, I couldn’t relax. An indefinable something told me that someone was watching and spying on us, that an alien somebody was out there, disturbing our peace.
Suddenly, the noise came again, footsteps crunched on the pebbles, and a voice rang out, making us jump:
A snow-dusted man appeared, bent down under the archway, threw a huge grey bundle to the ground and walked towards the fire.
Quickly recovering from our surprise, we greeted the stranger politely. We made a space for him; he pulled a bottle out of his pocket and took a nip of brandy.
“I took you for Italian customs officers at first," he said, "and we saw them prowling up to the camp at Roz last week, those carrion-eaters! Also, I didn’t want to be judged by my profession, but when I saw your axes and ropes, I said to myself they’re good people; you can trust them. And so here I am: Séraphin Mochay, formerly a guide.
Tall and well-built, the man was getting on for fifty. A broad kerchief of greying beard framed his honest face. The snow was slowly melting in the folds of his robe and on his shoes. As he spoke, he tamped tobacco into his pipe and lit it up with a twig from the fire.
We quickly warmed to each other’s company. Our new acquaintance, who had been smuggling for years, was about to cross the Valsorey Pass, alone, at dawn, in order to carry 45 kilos of prohibited foodstuffs over to the other side. He was undaunted by the fog and snow. On the contrary. He told his story with a natural bonhomie and a sober simplicity that I had to admire. What a man!
More than once, he said "When I was a guide", as if proudly highlighting this allusion to former times. And then I suddenly remembered: this Séraphin Mochay, smuggler, must be the same Séraphin Mochay who’d been sentenced to gaol and struck off from the roster of guides for having cut the rope during a mountain accident. I had heard this hoary story told a number of time: the agonising moral dilemma it raised seemed to be beyond the power of reason to resolve. Attempting a neutral tone of voice, I ventured to ask when he’d been a guide? But wasn’t that a long time ago? And wasn’t it you who... He interrupted me, his face creased into a frown.
“That's me, yes. They accused me of cutting the rope; and that's true; I did cut the rope; but (here the smuggler took the pipe out of his mouth), but I swear to you, gentlemen, that when I cut it, my client was already dead. But the scoundrels wouldn't believe me, or, if they did, they still wanted to blame me. And the rest of them hounded me out of the valley and banned me from being a guide again!”
His voice trembled; the colour had drained out of his face.
“Oh! if I could give you my side of this case, as I would give it to a tribunal, shout it out to the whole valley, this man would be innocent, do you hear? Innocent!”
I can still see him crouching by that bivouac fire, in the full red light of the flames, as he told his story. And when somebody speaks like that, you have to believe them. There are moments in life that bring home the facts with a force that is more certain than actual experience itself. And there, a stone's throw from the glaciers, amid the snow and the wind, the old guide could not lie. And so, quite straightforwardly, he told us his story.
(To be continued)
This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the third story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan. This was the story that, in the words of an alpine historian, "greatly agitated the guides of Zermatt".