Monday, August 17, 2020

The case of Séraphin Mochay, alpine guide (4)

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

"When I came to, slumped against the rock, the sun was tinging the peaks, and my nemesis was still there, lying motionless on the snow. A shiver ran through me and my head throbbed feverishly. "At the twelfth shooting star, you will cut the rope!" The hideous thought flashed back into my mind. Should I die with the dead man, or cut the rope? Die with the dead? The sacrifice would be useless; so cut the rope! But can a guide cut the rope, the bond that ties him to his guest?"

Climbers on a ridge: photo by Marcel Ichac (1906-1994)
Source of photo: John Mitchell Fine Paintings

"Yet that is what I did. With one hand grasping the granite, I opened the largest blade of my military knife with my teeth, and slowly cut into the rope where it was wound tightly around the rock. The strands snapped apart one after the other, and then came a sudden rasping noise as the rope whipped through the air, and Herr Bartmann's body plunged away head-first, his arms splayed out, his legs flailing limply. The rest you know. I spent a second night on the ridge of the Dent Blanche, half-frozen and starving, shattered by that night of horror, and the next evening I arrived in Zermatt, completely speechless, still with the end of the cut rope tied around my waist. Then they took me to court, sentenced me to two years in prison, and stripped me of my guide's diploma, disgraced me. Am I a murderer, a coward, for having cut a rope that tied me to a dead man?"

The smuggler fell silent. Sharing the same fellow-feeling, we stretched out our hands to him. He squeezed them with emotion, but made no other move. He stared at the fire, seeming to see the tragic spectacle dancing in the flames. Two large tears beaded on his eyelashes, trickled down his weatherbeaten cheeks and lost themselves in the hairs of his moustache. After a long time, he seemed to shrug off the visions that were creasing his forehead.

“Now come on, old Séraphin, your conscience is clear, get a grip and stand up. Gentlemen, goodbye. I'm sorry if I've bothered you with my nonsense, but you know how these things get to you, and thank you for your kind hospitality – it was very good of you.” He heaved up his heavy bundle, lit his pipe again, looked up at the lowering sky, and vanished into the gloom.

The sound of his footsteps faded into in the distance. We talked for a while longer, our voices hushed, as if the history we’d heard had stayed with us, casting its shadow of anguish over the company. Then we said good night to each other and huddled into our sleeping-bags.

From time to time, the fire flared up again, rekindled by the wind slipping through the cracks. Or sparks jetted out, lighting up the cave. The embers crackled dryly from time to time. Haunted by the smuggler’s story, I could not sleep, replaying in my mind all the scenes of this eerie drama as it had unfolded, high on the Dent Blanche. The guide clinging to the wall, his eyes stark, his hands bloodied, the rope stiff as a steel cable scouring the snow, and pendant from it, the dead man lolling on his back, the corpse slowly but inexorably dragging the survivor down to his death. The heavens are remarkably calm, a-glitter with stars. The Milky Way is up there, a broad thoroughfare for souls on their way to paradise - and sometimes a shooting star streaks silently by. The guide counts eleven of them, at the twelfth, he will cut the rope - the rope that binds him to a dead man.

At the foot of the smugglers' pass, a solitary figure is laboriously climbing the slope, bent double under his heavy burden. The glows of dawn start to paint the mist-wracked sky and, who knows, the customs officers may be lurking among the rocks on the ridge, their rifles at the ready. Or could it be the avalanche slope that is primed, ready for its plunging ride into the abyss.

As if to drown these reveries, the murmuring of the streams pouring from the Valsorey glacier grew louder in the night.

References

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".

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