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The men who climbed

by Marjorie Pickthall

Originally from Angels' shoes, and other stories (192?)
This copy from The Canada book of prose and verse:
Selected short stories
(1938 ed.)


  What had taken Stephen Forrester to the Exhibition would be difficult to say. He had told his friends that snow and ice and anything higher than a first floor made him feel ill, and had then proceeded to lose himself very pleasantly among the fleshpots. Well, he had earned his fleshpots. Yet here he was, at three o'clock on a sunny afternoon, paying his entrance fee like anybody else to the Association Rooms, to see Macrae's photographs.

  "The large photographs of Mount Forrester are in Room C," said the very efficient young person with the bobbed hair who gave him his change. "Kindly keep to the right." He thanked her humbly and clicked through the turnstile in the wake of a large woman in musquash and carnations, who would probably have given much to know him. For Forrester was something of a lion that winter.

  He went into Room C, after a guilty glance about A and B. But no one was there who knew him. No one said: "That's Forrester! Yes, the fellow with the limp. You'd never dream he was fond of, that sort of thing, would you?" His first thought was: "Mac did some good work!" Then, with an involuntary catching of the breath, he stopped short before the great photograph that he'd the end wall alone.

  And as he did so he knew with sure foreknowledge that any time in his life he might be brought up with that little thrill, that while he lived, a hundred chance scents or colours or silences would have power to renew for him that air of ineffable space, those sheathed and virgin rocks, those upper snows austere against the burning blue; that the impersonal passion of the climber had been, was, and for ever would be the moving force of his soul.

  "Mount Forrester from the Southeast," the catalogue had it. Just that! He was the man who had conquered Mount Forrester; and he was the man who knew how utterly the great height had conquered him.

  He sat down on one of the leather divans placed at intervals down the centre of the room, staring at the enlarged photograph with half-closed eyes. The heated air grew cold in his throat; inside his irreproachable gloves the scars of his old frost-bites burned and tingled; he tapped one well-shod foot — the lame one — on the floor. There in the extreme left-hand corner of the picture was the bit of ice that had slid and crushed him. That had been on the return journey. They said he'd never walk again. Macrae himself had been all in when he took that picture. Why, they'd put him in the tent in the middle of a snow flurry; the cloud had cleared and the light was right, they'd found Mac up to his ears in snow half a mile away; clutching the camera — raving, but he'd taken the picture.

  "Excuse me, boss — you done any climbin'?"

  Forrester came to earth with a start, and leaned round the curve of the leather seat-back the better to see and answer the man who had so suddenly spoken to him. But he was slow in answering as the details of the questioner's face presented themselves to him around the curve of the fat green morocco. For what possible interest could such a one have in climbing mountains? An elderly clerk out of work? Scarcely educated enough, judged Forrester. A night watchman? More likely. Anyway, a sub-underassistant at whatever he set his hand to do. The stamp of the man born to work under other men was on him, on his respectable garments, on his vague face set in graying bristles; one could guess him treading for ever the same smoothed rut, running on the same rail, until pushed off at last into a still deeper obscurity. And he was already growing old. Forrester, clean from his heights, was quick to pity. "One of the Great Unlucky," he said to himself; and aloud: "Yes, I've climbed a good bit. Are you — interested in it?"

  The stranger smiled slowly. Then he drew out seven coppers and arranged them along his dingy palm. There was a certain youthfulness, a hovering and unexpected sweetness in his smile that attracted Forrester. "These here," he said, "are all I got left of what Maggie allows me for baccy this week, after paying my admission." He returned the coins to his pocket and resumed his slow contemplation of the picture.

  For a moment Forrester was in doubt. But the shabby-respectable man was oblivious of him, his whole attention absorbed in the picture. And it was Forrester who renewed the conversation on some impulse of sympathy, saying: "Where have you done your climbing?"

  "Me? Oh, anywhere north of Thunder Valley, for the most part. You've got to climb there to get about. Don't see any sense in doing it for fun." He turned his eyes again to the photograph, and once more that shy, half-boyish smile transfigured his commonplace face. "But you think different when you're young, eh, Mister? Where you do your climbing, if I may ask?"

  Forrester nodded toward the wall. "Thereabouts mostly," he said pleasantly. "My name's Forrester — Stephen Forrester, at your service."

  The stranger turned completely around; his face rose over the back of the divan like a queer mild moon. "You — Forrester?" he said with interest. "Well, now! You the fellow that climbed that mountain an' had it named for him?"

  "Yes," smiled Forrester, conscious of an excusable glow.

  "My!" said the unknown softly. "My! If that don't beat all!" He looked at Forrester carefully, as if making a friendly inventory of him. He rubbed his hands gently together. "Maggie'll be that amused to hear tell I've seen you!" he said shyly.

  Well — amused was not just the word that Forrester had expected! But the other man came sidling along the leather seat, all alight with interest. He put out his hand, so palpably the hand of a failure, and touched Forrester's sleeve. "Mister," he begged simply, "tell me all about it, so's I can tell Maggie!"

  The appeal hit Forrester in his softest place. He was touched. Who was Maggie? He visioned her as beautiful and dreaming of her native hills; in a mental flash he saw himself telling a moving story to a dozen well-appointed dinner-tables. He said kindly: "Tell me what you want to know. But first — who's Maggie? Where is she?"

  "My old girl, Mister. She's washing dishes at Henniker's till I get a job." He went on with a touch of pride: "She don't have to work when I'm doing anything, boss."

  Again Forrester was moved; he guessed that Maggie washed dishes a lot at Henniker's and did it cheerily. Maggie's husband went on with a shy eagerness, jerking his thumb at the wall: "Did you have to cross Somahl' to the glacier, Mister?" "Yes." Forrester was conscious of an increasing astonishment, for the glacier was not shown on the photograph, and is not named on any map. "We climbed that long ridge to the east — the photograph does not show much of it — and worked along till we came to the little plateau. And there we made our last camp. We went up next day. We wanted to do it in a day, so as not to spend a night at that altitude."

  "I know." The face of Maggie's husband showed keener, harder; he was touched with some quiet amusement that puzzled Forrester. "You went up roped, boss?"

  "As far as that big fissure." Forrester was kindling, as a lyric poet might kindle at the talk of love. "We cast them off then. They were too great a weight. We kept them as dry as we could, but there was a continual poudre and they were frozen as stiff as steel rods, crackling as we moved. It sounded so loud, that crackle."

  "The papers say you were the only one that made the peak, Mister, the only one that made good."

  "It wasn't the other fellows' faults," said Forrester quickly. "They were fine stuff — white men. I tell you they gave up their chances so I should have mine. Yes. They helped me all through, spent their strength for me so that in the end they'd none left, and I went on alone on their strength. A man said to me last week: 'You hired them, didn't you?' 'What difference does that make?' I said, 'when they gave me what money couldn't buy?'"

  Forrester's eyes went to the picture; he was abruptly silent. Then: "They gave me that," he breathed.

  After a minute he went on quietly, talking more to himself than to the man beside him

  "I left Mason and Pieters on the last tiny level with the tent over them. Mason was finished. Pieters could have come with me, but daren't leave Mason, who was in a state of collapse, and blue. Pieters never stopped rubbing him, he told me, for an hour. I went on alone, up a slope of hard old snow, steep, but easy enough — that slope — and in five minutes it was as if I'd been alone for centuries from the beginning of the world! I drew myself up on a ledge and looked down. Mason and Pieters were little black figures beneath. Pieters lifted a hand to me. Then I went on over that hummock — there — and they were gone. It seemed to be all right — all right, I mean, that I should be alone at the end — alone with my mountain.

  "The hardest part of the climbing was over. There remained only that great soaring wedge of immortal snow, that heaved above me into the blue. I had only to climb, to keep on working upward as long as my strength held. I knew it would not fail. My arms, outstretched against the face of the steep, and looking as weak as a fly's legs, were yet long enough and strong enough to clasp the whole of that magnificent summit, and leave their mark upon it, and conquer it. What a thing humanity is. Oh, I'm talking nonsense, if you like, but I was a little mad at the time. If you've climbed, you know how it is!"

  But Forrester saw at the same moment that his listener didn't know how it was, for all he was smiling indulgently. "I've been mad in my time, boss," he said almost with a wink. "I haven't the head for such things now."

  Forrester laughed a little. "It took some head," he confessed, nodding at the photograph. "After I worked round that curve there, I had nothing under me but a drop — a drop clear to timber-line. I'd loose a handful of snow from somewhere, and it'd go glittering off into the emptiness behind me like frozen smoke, and I'd stick close for a minute to see if any more was coming. Then I'd watch those bits of snow-dust fall and fall and fall — miles and miles they seemed to fall, right to the black furriness that was the forest of the lower slopes. They came near to shaking me. And now and then I seemed to have nothing at all under hands or feet — to be just afloat in dizzy space. Then I'd look up, and the whole weight of the summit'd rush back at me — hang over me until I seemed to be underneath it and crushed flat. And then I'd kind of come back to myself, and know what I was doing. And I tell you I wouldn't have swapped places with a millionaire! It's at times like that a man feels his soul alive in him and knows he can't fail, whatever seems to happen. They say that normally we only use about one-tenth of our power of living. It takes the divine moment to teach us what we are when we use ten-tenths — what we are!"

  Forrester was frankly smiling now, frankly talking to himself. Maggie's husband was listening in respectful bewilderment, yet with something held in reserve; he sat with his elbows on his knees and his hands dangling forward. Forrester wished he wouldn't; somehow, those hands looked so inept, so apologetic. He went on abruptly:

  "I was corkscrewing upwards, if you see what I mean. I calculated to reach the top on the side opposite to where I'd left my two men, for we'd seen that the overhang was less there. But on that side the wind was worse. It was not strong — just a steady swim of cold air fit to freeze the breath inside you.

  "I was working up very safely and steadily, finding everything much easier than I had expected, which is often the way. I was cutting steps in solid snow. Nothing could happen to me as long as I kept on cutting steps. I was as safe as a house, for all the next stopping place was two thousand feet under. And I was just thinking so when the thong with which my ice-axe was looped round my wrist caught against a snag that thrust through the snow-crust, and snapped. I shifted my grip on the shaft for greater security; and the next instant the thing was out of my hand and glissading down the slope.

  "Well, it was awkward enough, but not fatal. I went on without it, though slower; making detours round hummocks I'd have cut into, and scooping holds with the big knife I had on a lanyard round my neck. I went on so for maybe another hour, not thinking of the top, pinning my mind to every inch of the ascent.

  "And then — all in a moment, as it seemed — I looked up. And there was the summit not two hundred feet above me, and easy all the way.

  "Well, I hung on with toes and fingers and tried to cheer, but I couldn't get it out. Change places with a millionaire! I wouldn't have changed places with the kings of the earth! And then I looked more closely at what lay in front of me. And the cheer went out of me like the flame out of a candle.

   "Immediately over me, and for as far round as I could see, the mountain-top was girdled with a band of rock, a sheer face, too sheer to hold the snow. It was all veined with ice, pitted and porous with the weather since the world began — soft stuff, crumbling under frost and sun. Yes, there was just about twenty feet of it. After that a smooth mound of snow to the very crest. And I lay with my chin in a drift at the foot of it, and cried like a baby. For I knew that no power on earth could get me up that little twenty-foot wall of rock without an axe to chip holds with.

  "I worked up to it and stood against it. There was a ledge that held me comfortably. I stood on it and drove in the knife as far as I could reach above my head, tossed my line round it and pulled. It came away in a tinkle of tiny ice-chips and rotten rock. I stared below me. I wondered how long it would take me to get down — without having reached the top. I looked to my right, just to make certain of what I was deadly sure of already — that there wasn't any possible way up for a single climber farther along the ledge. And there, as sure as I'm a living man, were little steps cut roughly in the rock — choked with ice, but recognizable, serviceable.

  "When I told our president that," said Forrester after a silence, "he told me I'd gone light-headed from exposure."

  Forrester gazed at the picture a moment, a smile on his fine vivid face. His eyes looked into a great distance; and the eyes of the man beside him rested on him — kindly, uncomprehendingly, a little wistfully, as if he were trying to follow Forrester into that shining distance.

  "I knew," Forrester was speaking to his own soul. "Oh, I knew," he repeated, softly. "I met him there. I felt him there — my nameless forerunner! There was a high spirit near me in the very wind. I touched hands with an unknown comrade, a friend who'd climbed higher leaving his glory to me like a coat for which he'd no more use. How high he must have climbed! To the very stars!

  "The steps were very much weathered. They looked very old. They were filled, as I said, with old ice, which I chipped out with the hook of my knife. I went up hand over hand.

  "The rest was easy. I won't trouble you with it. I stood on the summit at last, and left the tiny flag there that I'd carried up. He — my forerunner — seemed to be waiting for me there; I fancied that he gave me a generous smile. I knew he didn't grudge me anything. It sounds rubbish here, eh? but there I smiled back at him — the man in whose steps I'd climbed to the best thing life's given me yet; and I drank his health. Then I — came down."

  The pleasant, vigorous voice died to silence. Both men, so contrasted, sat silent for a while, looking at the picture, which even in the electric light seemed to glow and recede into some splendid atmosphere of its own.

  At last Forrester turned, a little shamefaced; he felt that in talking so to a man who couldn't possibly understand, he'd gone very near to making a fool of himself and his mountain. There was honest pity in his heart for any man who knew nothing of such austere triumphs as he enjoyed; perhaps there was a shade of contempt, too, as he said hastily: "See here, I've made you listen to a lot of stuff, eh? But you must let me pay for this, you know. Just the price of admission — between two men who have something in common."

  He broke off. For he was not heard. The shabby man was gazing at the photograph. And as he gazed he chuckled quietly and rubbed his faded knees. "If you'd looked, Mister," he said, "if you'd looked, maybe you'd have found the bits of an old lantern, up there where you left the flag!"

  Perfectly motionless, Forrester waited.

  The shabby man turned to him genially. "Such fools as we are when we're young!" he said. "How it all comes back!" He smiled upon the younger man again with that bright, gentle look which gave him momentarily the aspect of youth; it was like a light reflected from some mountain-peak of the soul. He went on: "Maggie'll be that interested when she hears some one has sat right alongside me, talking — excuse me, boss — like man to man, some one that's been up that there mountain!"

  Still Forrester waited, dry-mouthed.

  "You see, Mister, me and Maggie always counted that old mountain as ours, seeing that I was the only fellow had ever been up it in those days. And a fine fool I was. Many's the time Maggie's said to me: 'I wonder I took you, Si,' she's said, 'seeing you showed me what kind of a fool you were when you were courting.' Maggie's a great one for a joke. 'Or maybe,' she says, 'I took you just because you were such a fool that Christmas. There's no accounting for a woman's taste,' she says."

  That reflection of a far light rosed his colourless face as he turned again to Forrester; it lighted a pleasant blue star in his homely eyes; he laughed consciously, and glanced down at his patched shoes.

  "We weren't married then," he explained confidentially. "It's a long time ago. Seems queer that there ever was a time when Maggie and me weren't married; but there was." He wrinkled his brow with a ruminative air. "But there was never, at no time, any other girl than Maggie Delane for me." He looked gently at Forrester. "You should 'a' seen her then," he said; "she was the puniest girl in Cascapedia, my Maggie was.

  "There was a lot of fellows after her. She could 'a' done lots better, but — she stuck to me. Seems like I didn't have much luck, even then. I don't know why — I was always willing to work. It just happened that way, Mister. Times I said to her: 'You'd best quit me, honey, and take up with a luckier man.' I said that not knowing just what I'd do if she'd 'a' done it. But she — she just put her hands on my shoulders," — he glanced wonderingly at his shabby coat, — "she put her hands there, an' she says: 'Good luck or bad, I'll never go back on you, Si.'" His slow eyes went back to Forrester's face. "You know how it is with them, with the good ones, boss, when they're — fond of a feller."

  "No," said Forrester, after a short silence, and very humbly, "no, I don't know — yet. Go on, please. Tell me the rest."

  "We were to have been married that Christmas. But I didn't have any luck. I didn't have enough saved. It near broke my heart. I hadn't got so kind of used to waiting on things then, and I was just set on going to Cascapedia and claiming my girl that Christmas. She was working in a store there, and I was on a lumbering job back on the Ouconagan. 'Twasn't so far asunders, but the hills rose up to heaven in betwixt us. I hadn't seen her in a long while, Mister. And when the time came on, an' I'd no luck an' had been sick, an' dassent to quit my job, I tramped those hills all one night, boss, trying to find the nerve to write Maggie and say: 'We can't be married this Christmas after all, honey; we'll have to wait for the spring.'"

  He bent down and picked a thread carefully from his frayed trousers. Raising his head, he stared again at the picture. "I wrote it at last," he went on in his heavy way, "an' I sent it to her. I was down an' out. I — kind of lost my self-respect, boss, having to write that way to Maggie when she could 'a' done so much better . . . . Yes, sir. An' then her answer came. She wasn't a very good writer. She just said I wasn't to worry; she guessed she could get along without me till the spring — always one for a joke, was Maggie! — but I was to think of her on Christmas."

  The shabby man's voice trailed off into silence. After a moment he said, thoughtfully: "Queer how they — the good ones — can break a fellow all up an' put him on his feet at the same time, ain't it boss?"

  "I — don't know," said Forrester softly. "Go on, please."

  "She said I was to think of her on Christmas. Something you said awhile back put me in mind of how I felt then. Think of her! Why, I — I felt as though I could chop the mountains down same as if they were trees to get her! I felt there was nothing — just nothing — I couldn't do, or bear, or get, so as Maggie didn't quit me. I felt I'd get her those great shiny stars for buttons to her Sunday dress if she was wanting them. Made me feel twelve foot high and drunk, she did, just with three lines o' bad spelling and a joke! I'd five dollars in my pocket, an' I went an' looked up a Siwash, one o' those mountain Injuns that looks like a Chinaman and moves up or down like a goat; I'd done him a kindness a little while back, an' he was grateful, which is more'n a white fellow always is. I said, would he take a letter to my klootch in Cascapedia, for five dollars, she to get it on Christmas? Yes, he said, he would. I gave him the letter an' the bill, an' off he went — not that she was rightly my klootch then, o' course, an' she'd 'a' been terrible vexed if she'd known I called her so; but it was near enough for him.

  "We weren't so far apart, as I said — not so many miles on the level, only not a yard of it was level; the hills were like a wall between us; but there was one thing we could both see, one thing that was in sight from Cascapedia an' from the Ouconagan on the other side. An' that was that mountain there."

  He looked at the picture with lingering surprise. "My!" he said, "You would never think I'd been up there, would you? You'd think I was too old and had too much sense. But I was young then; and some way Maggie'd made me clean crazy."

  He flushed and gave Forrester a shy, friendly smile. "Two nights," he said, laughing a little, "two nights I sat up, fixing a lantern to suit me — fixing it so's no draft could get in, putting in extra wicks an' more oil an' the dear knows what-all! I'd said to Maggie in my letter I'd sent, 'You borrow a pair of glasses if it isn't clear,' I said, 'an' you look at the top o' the biggest mountain you see in betwixt us,' I said 'on Christmas night, an' you'll see if I'm thinking of you or not, Maggie Delane.' That's what I said.

  "When the lantern was fixed, I packed it on my back careful, an' I borrowed an ice-axe, an' a pair o' creepers, an' I climbed that there mountain an' left the lighted lantern on the top."

  Forrester stared at him. Did he know what he was saying, what, in that brief day of glory given him by a girl's trust, he had done? No, he had no inkling of it; no shadow of a suspicion crossed his simple mind that he had achieved a feat that no man had been able to repeat for thirty years. He was smiling pleasantly, indulgently, at the folly of his youth. And Forrester said, not knowing he spoke aloud: "It's better it should be like that. It's more beautiful so."

  "Did you speak, Mister?"

  "No — nothing. Please go on."

  But the charm was broken; the reflection of that far light was fading from the aging face as Forrester had seen the reflected glory of his peak fading from the lowlands. The shabby man's shyness was increasing; he looked at Forrester uneasily. "I don't know what made me talk so much," he mumbled apologetically. "Seeing that picture an' all, I guess. I'm not generally one to talk much."

  "Good heavens, man," cried Forrester, "don't you know you've just been telling me the most beautiful thing I ever heard?" He checked himself abruptly at the look in his companion's face. "Tell me how you got up," he went on more quietly.

  But the present had again usurped the splendid past.

  "I don't rightly remember now," said the shabby man uncertainly. "My mind was so full of Maggie: anyway . . . I crossed the glacier below where you did, an' then I — I guess. I just went up, boss."

  "Yes," agreed Forrester, "you just went up . . . And the lantern wasn't hurt, and Maggie saw the light from Cascapedia?"

  "She saw it, boss. It burned till the oil gave out. 'Twasn't hurt a mite."

  Forrester looked again at the photograph. He visioned his great peak, a shadow against the winter stars, crowned with a tiniest point of light — a weak star that invaded those awful solitudes, those dominions of wind and cloud, dawn and darkness, to tell a girl in a store that her man hadn't forgotten her! He roused from his vision to hear Maggie's husband mumbling good-bye.

  ". . . be terribly amused to hear I've seen you," he heard. "Take it as a favour, boss, if you'd not mention it to anyone . . . do a steady man no good. They'd think I was drunk."

  Forrester got up and shook hands.

  "It's better that way, too," he said abruptly, "though you won't have the least idea what I mean. If I can ever have the honour of doing anything for you or Maggie let me know."

  The shabby man was gone. Forrester went and stood in front of the great photograph. The room was empty. He took out his fountain pen.

  He looked again at the picture of the peak. "Not mine," he said under his breath, and humbly, "not mine!" There was a large ticket attached to the frame, bearing the legend: "Mount Forrester from the Southeast." He crossed out the word "Forrester," and above the erasure, in neat black letters, he wrote the words: "Maggie Delane." Then he, too, went away.