MER DE GLACE
The lobby grew cluttered with trunks and unclaimed luggage. Rats were leaving France as if it were sinking. Each day more rooms were shut up and shrouded; each meal an ordeal whispers among the polished glasses, the silver forks and starched white figured damask linen. Shadows crept to fill the empty spaces, silence muffled every corridor and staircase until two new gusts came down to breakfast one morning, the optimism of youth shining from their cheeks. A young man and a girl. Fair-haired and wholesome.
Laura leaned towards her husband who was reading an old copy of the Morning Post. “They look friendly. Introduce us, please, she asked Charles. He continued reading. She sipped her coffee.
She summoned the waiter in her faltering French. At this, the new young man smiled from across the room. She should have looked away - she was after all, and married women had to preserve their dignity and reputation - but she liked his grey eyes too much for that, even she was a married woman and, after all, and married women had to preserve their dignity and reputation. Only, the cloud of war that hung over them all was already rewriting the rules. She could feel the scratch of the moving pen on her skin.
The young man turned to the window and the misted rooftops. His companion chewed her plait amiably. He reached over the table and slapped her hand at which she giggled and slapped him back.
Laura stirred her coffee. “I can't quite make them out. What do you think?”
Charles turned a page.
Beyond the windows another summer's day was easing itself to its full brilliance. The glaciers were retreating, the meadows were scorched, their flowers wilted, but still the river thundered on. During the sweet, sticky nights when sleep eluded her, its constant chunter shared her insomnia.
“Please, my dear. I'm trying to read a complex article about the Austro-Hungarians. I can't concentrate if you keep interrupting.”
Laura bit her lip. When she first met Charles she had fallen in love with his calm reason. Having been brought up as the baby of a house that was never silent, a house that resounded to the petty squabbles of five sisters, she had been flattered by his quiet attention. But she'd already forgotten how to speak to him and he no longer listened. What she had learned was how not to make a noise when she cried.
The waiter placed a boiled egg on the table. Charles folded his newspaper and picked up a spoon. “Your eyes are very bright today, Laura. Doctor Parkin was right to suggest the Alps. The mountain air suits you.” In fact, Chamonix had been Laura's idea. The doctor had recommended Baden-Baden, but Charles had put his foot down. And she wondered how much mountain air she had breathed since she wasn't allowed to leave the hotel. She had lost her delight in books; her delight in life. What was there to do but spend her days in their room, staring at the carved and painted furniture?
“You'd think,” said Charles, “that a hotel of this calibre would understand the concept of 'lightly boiled.' This is concrete.”
H pushed the plate away and picked up his newspaper. It was the first he had come across since they had arrived and he had pounced on it like a hawk on a rabbit. Laura poured more coffee from the pot and, inhaling its dark bitterness, resumed her observations. The girl was toying with the crumbs left on her plate and the man was watching her and jotting notes in his book.
“I know who they are,” she said. “Hansel and Gretel. He has worked out a plan so they won't get lost in the forest. He will drop the crumbs behind them to make a trail. But it won't work. The birds will eat the crumbs and the dark forest will close over them. They will never escape.”
Charles threw his newspaper across the table. “Can't a man have some peace and quiet?” His egg and spoon clattered to the floor. “I don't know why I bother. This is such an old edition. We could already be at war.”
Hansel and Gretel rose from their table. When they'd gone, Laura whispered. “I think they're German.”
“Hansel and Gretel. The couple by the window.”
Charles glanced about the empty room. “Are you sure you're not feverish again? Besides, there won't be any Germans here now. They'll all be back home preparing for war. They knew what was up the moment the Archduke was assassinated.”
Laura laughed. Charles's features sharpened. “I fail to see any humour in the situation. I sometimes think your misfortune has affected your mind.”
“You are right. It isn't funny. Nothing is funny any more.” She forced herself to her feet. “I'm tired. I'm going to lie down.”
Charles's manner changed on the instant. “My dear. You should have said before. I apologise for my earlier outburst, but it is the fault of the Kaiser.” He rapped the newspaper with his knuckles. “Impossible to believe he shares the same blood as our King. Let me take your arm.”
Laura had lied. She wasn't weary, at least not in her body. That fizzed and spat like fat in a pan. As soon as Charles left her to return to his breakfast she flung open the shutters and leaned over the balcony. The town was going about its business. Carts thronged the streets. Neighbours hailed each other across the river. Below her the crashing of pots and the hot greasiness of lunch being prepared drifted up from the kitchens. A boy was sweeping the flags of the hotel terrace, dragging out tables and chairs, brushing fallen leaves from the canopied swing-seat. He was whistling between his teeth. Behind him, the river tumbled over heaps of smoothed boulders. The colour and texture of onyx, it rushed on, never changing, ever moving. How long would it take before the water she could see poured into the Rhone? And how long before it disgorged into the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean? When a fisherman dragged his nets ashore in Corsica, when his gasping, silver treasure slithered into the baskets he would later carry to market, would he see that same water? And if some of that same water glistening on one fish's back later splashed on the market floor, how long would it be before the sun reclaimed it, sucked it up, to fall as snow on the peaks that now shimmered through the mist? For the journey did not begin here. It started up there in the ice that had creaked and cracked high above her centuries before; ice that had felt the weight of mammoths.
So what then of the looming war? What did it mean to rivers, glaciers and mountains? And what then of the loss of one child, a child who had never breathed air nor drank water, compared with such enormity?
Threads of mist lay in loose skeins across the valley and shawled the white Massif, but as she watched, the threads unravelled and the peaks revealed themselves to her. They didn't roar or splash like the river; they didn't chatter and clatter like the servants in the kitchens but they spoke to her.
She only wished she knew what they were saying.
The effort exhausted her. The moment slipped from her grasp. The mist closed in again. She shivered, closed the shutters and lay down on the bed.
She must have slept. Sunlight striped the wall and Charles was leaning over her. “I'm sorry not have come up before, but I have met the most interesting fellow newly arrived from London. Morris - that's his name - says that if war comes, the British Army will soon trounce our enemies. He also says he can find me a suitable military posting so I won't miss the show. I suggested that he and I went for a stroll to mull things over. You don't mind, do you?”
She closed her eyes. “Not at all.”
“Splendid. What glory awaits us all. Something to tell the children, eh?”
“What children would these be, Charles? Dr Parkin told me . . .”
“Doctors aren't always right, you know.”
“Shouldn't you go down? You don't want to keep Mr Morris waiting. She sat up. “By the way. This war. It made you angry at breakfast. And now it's a glorious show. What's changed?” But he'd gone.
She ran out on the balcony in time to see him striding out swinging his Alpenstock, in animated conversation with a squat man with no neck. “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” she muttered.
It was only when someone coughed that she realised she’d been heard. Below her Hansel's tanned face peered up at her. He was then joined by Gretel who waved her straw hat like a banner. “My brother has ordered me to wear this to prevent . . .” She began in English but floundered.
“Freckles,” said Laura. The girl giggled.
“Eva and I are about to have lunch,” said the young man. “Join us.”
“Are you a prisoner?” said Eva.
“No, but I have. . .” She chose her words with care. “I have been ill. I need to rest.” “You can rest here,” said Eva.
“Indeed you can. It is most pleasant in the shade.”
After introductions had been made and hats compared, Laura found herself seated at a small table beneath a plane tree with a glass of wine before her and a cushion at her back. Hansel's real name was Theo Strauss. He was studying law, which he loathed.
“He wants to be a poet,” said Eva. “He and Papa had a row about it, but Theo will have his way. He always does”
“Frau Thompson does not want to know that.”
“Laura, please. You make me sound old.”
“How old are you?”
“I don't mind. I'm twenty five.”
“Theo is twenty three and I am sixteen.”
“Don't lie. You are fifteen and only just that.”
Eva pouted. “You sound more like Papa every day.”
Theo explained that his father had asked him to take Eva on a European tour to complete her education.” But she refuses to learn anything. She is hopeless.”
Eva pulled a face. She began to strip lengths of straw from her hat and drop them to the ground. Theo grabbed it. “I thought I told you to put your hat on your head, not your lap.”
“Poof!” Eva snatched it back, stood up, slapped it down on her seat and sat on it.
Laura was amused. “You remind me so much of myself. I was the baby of a big family so I got everyone's cast-off. I once threw a pair of perfectly serviceable boots to our neighbour's pig.”
“It gobbled them up.”
“I wish I'd thought of that.”
“Don't encourage her,” said Theo firmly although he was not angry. “She already admires you too much.”
“I'm very ordinary.”
“Oh you are not ordinary at all,” exclaimed Eva, piling salad onto her plate. “You are quite beautiful. Theo said your hair is like golden thistledown and that you are a princess locked in marriage to an evil wizard.”
“That is quite enough, Eva. And hold your fork properly. You are not a peasant.” Theo's anger silenced her and she said nothing more until the effects of the wine and food once more softened his eyes.
When the meal was over, Laura and Eva moved to the swing-seat. The shadows of the plane-trees crept inch by inch across the terrace. A soft breeze rolled down from the mountains, rustling the dry leaves above them. Chaffinches pecked for crumbs at their feet. Two doves were calling to each other and bees lumbered through the heavy afternoon air. The seat creaked as it swung, its fringe rippled and Eva snored gently, her arm thrown across Laura's lap. Theo remained at the table, reading. Absorbed and without self-regard, he melted into the scenery. Laura looked past him to the mountains, their whiteness merging with the pale sky behind a veil of shimmering light. She fanned herself with Eva's flattened hat. “I feel like a Lotus Eater. Do you know Tennyson's poetry?”
Theo closed his book. “Of course. 'On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.' Shall I order tea?”
“No thank you. I am sipping nectar.”
He smiled. “Tea, Eva?”
His sister moved her arm but did not wake. “She is fortunate to have you to care for her,” said Laura.
“She doesn't think so.”
“Where will you go when you leave France?”
“We had planned to tour England. But that is now out of the question.”
“The war,” she said watching a line of schoolboys march past.
“If war comes . . . .”
“It will come.”
“Will you fight?” She had a sudden image of Charles and Theo rushing towards each other, sabres aloft.
“I have asthma,” he said. “Eva does not know yet but as soon as war is declared I shall take her to Zurich. Our family is to gather there. And you? What plans have you made?”
She shook her head. She couldn't think ahead nor imagine anything other than leaning back, suspended in the air, beneath the glittering mountains. She wanted to catch the butterfly moment in her hand and hold it captive, feel it fluttering until she chose to let it go. The purring of the doves, the flop of a leaf onto a table, Eva's crumpled hat, the rush of the river behind her, a hawk hanging above the valley, the sun on its slow decline, the scent of rain in the next valley.
“When I first came here,” she said. “The mountains seemed too large. I was terrified they would crash down on me.”
“And now?” asked Theo batting a fly from his face.
“Like they want to embrace me and keep me safe. Like a mother folds herself over her child.” A sob caught her by surprise. Theo leaned forward in his chair, not questioning but giving her space to speak further and before she was aware she was doing it, before she had time to regret her indiscretion, she was telling him about the miscarriage and the doctor's fear that she would never have another child.
“I detect your loss has left a shard of ice in your heart,” he said
Mountain weather is volatile and clouds were now rolling through the valley. Thunder growled. Wind rattled the trees and lifted the leaves from the ground. The birds had stopped chirping but the river tumbled down to the Rhone, to the sea, to the sky to fall as rain, to trickle, splash, rush, pour and tumble again and again and again. And here she was.
And there was Charles. He took her arm and with a cold nod to Theo, pulled her from the seat and propelled her into the hotel, up the stairs and into their room. “Have you taken leave of your senses? Here we are on the very precipice of war and I find you intimate with Germans.”
Laura gripped the bedstead. “At breakfast you said there were no Germans here. Don't you remember? All Germans are at home preparing for war.”
Charles raised his hand. “Morris says there may well be spies working here.”
An explosion of mirthless laughter ripped through her. Charles shook his head. “You are such an innocent, my dear. By the way, I have asked him to join us for dinner. I want you downstairs by eight. And wear your pearls.”
Laura couldn't move. Her limbs were lead weights. A ball of ice was swelling within her. She felt both very small and as mighty and implacable as the mountains over whose heads, inky rags of cloud were now pouring. If she chose to she could rip the paper from the walls, claw the paint from the wardrobe, shatter the windows and leap to the ground and run through the streets, a screaming harpy. Instead, she had to pull each frozen word from her mouth. “No Charles. I will not wear your pearls and I will not come down for dinner.”
“If that is your decision, I will respect it. Morris will understand. I have already informed him of your misfortune.”
“Indeed, Laura. Our misfortune.” He patted her arm. She shook the gesture off and he left her.
She shrank to think that Charles could freely dispense private information that had taken a pair of soft, grey eyes to extract from her. “My wife is a semi-invalid, you know, since she lost our first child. That's why I brought her here despite the imminence of war. Physically she is recovering but I am somewhat concerned about her mental state.”
Damn him! She slammed the window against the rain that was now sheeting across the town. The terrace was water-logged; the swing-seat rocked like a ship at sea. Rain lashed the flagstones and the wind's teeth shredded the sodden ribbons of Eva's hat that lay abandoned on the seat.
The rain fell all night and on and off for the next three days as July became August. Bloated clouds filled the valley, blotting out the crags and peaks. The river rose and spilled into cellars and kitchens, but Laura, curled up in her bed, knew nothing of this only that she was living up to Charles's stereotype of a weak and silly woman. She hated herself for it, but couldn't see how to stop until one afternoon—she didn't know what day of the week it was—Eva knocked and entered. She flumped down at the foot of the bed, chewing her plait.
“Are you very ill?”
“Not at all.”
“Theo and I miss you terribly. We have been worried.”
“There was no need.” She felt ashamed of their concern but at the same time she tingled in its glow. Suddenly, bored with the role she had imposed upon herself, she finally became aware of how others might see her. She touched her hair. It was thick and matted. Her nightdress clung to her, grey and crumpled. Medicine bottles cluttered the mantelpiece and discarded clothes were strewn across the floor.
“Theo says you have an illness of the heart.”
“Did he? Then he is wrong. There is nothing wrong with my heart. It's more simple than that. My husband says I must not speak to Germans.”
‘I see.’ Eva opened the shutters. The clouds had gone; the sky was a sheet of blue. The mountains remained.
“Theo thought as much,” she said. “Tell me. If your husband knew I was here, would he kill us?”
“Charles?” The very idea of her husband, of all people, bursting into the room armed with a gun, sword or even his Alpenstock was so ridiculous that she giggled. Eva joined in and the more they did so the more ridiculous her prolonged sulk was. “Run downstairs,” she said when she had regained control. “Tell Theo I shall be on the terrace in fifteen minutes.”
It wasn't difficult. She didn't have to lie. Charles was so regular in his habits that she knew he and Morris wouldn't return to the hotel until four-thirty by which time she was calmly seated alone on the terrace, reading a novel. And if her cheeks were more flushed than usual, and even if Charles noticed, she could put it down to the alpine air.
She, Eva and Theo soon established a routine. Lunch on the terrace, tea on the swing seat followed. Their conversation was mainly about music and literature. Laura was ashamed that, despite Theo's low opinion of Eva's learning, she knew far more about them than she did. Theo recommended books for her and she read thirstily. Her French improved and she asked Theo to teach her German. She was no linguist but when they were apart, how she longed for the joy of sitting next to him with a pile of books between them, watching the changing emotions in his eyes as she stumbled over his language, sensing his closeness, stealing herself for his warm breath on her cheek, the brush of his hand against hers.
The only thing she dared not do was leave the hotel. Petty acts of defiance were easy enough; blatant disobedience was quite another matter. But when Eva mentioned that she and Theo were planning to walk up to the famous Mer de Glace the following day, she knew she had to be there with them.
“We shall walk,” said Eva. “But there is a new railway to the glacier. You could manage that, couldn't you?”
“I don't know. I will have to ask my husband.”
“Poof. I will never marry if I have to ask permission to do what pleases me.”
“That is enough, Eva” said Theo. “You know nothing.”
“And you're horrid.”
She stomped over to the river. “She is disappointed,” he said watching his sister hurl pebble after pebble into the river. “She never knew our mother. I wish you could come on your own.”
“Is it for Eva that you ask or for yourself?”
“Laura,” he said. “False naivety is not becoming.”
Charles was pleasingly relaxed over dinner. Laura suspected that he and Morris had shared more than animated conversation and had themselves decided to see this famous ‘meteorological phenomenon’. The excursion by train to the glacier was easily decided on. He had patted her arm and said how relieved he was that she was almost back to her old self. Only Morris, too, was to be included.
The carriages soon filled. Laura hadn't been aware that so many tourists still remained in the town. She had assumed that there carriage would be half empty but she found herself glumly wedged between Charles and a Belgian woman who, clearly expecting a famine, was distributing lumps of bacon and bread amongst her offspring.
The little engine nosed the carriages up the winding track. One moment she had a fleeting view of the valley and the next the train plunged her into dank blue forest and dripping tunnels before once more bursting out into the light. The air grew increasingly chillier and she felt thin and stretched, distant from reality.
And yet, even here, the talk was of war. The word scuttled up and down the carriage like a rat. Morris had no other topic of conversation. In order to catch what he was saying over the snorts of the engine and the rattle of the carriage, Charles had to lean away from her across the aisle to where Morris perched, his Alpenstock gripped between his tweed knees.
The train lurched ever upwards. Women crossed themselves, silent lips moving; children screamed and gasped as the incline steepened or the track seemed to cling to the very edge of a precipice. Morris had finally run out of war platitudes and was reading aloud from his guidebook. “The Mer de Glace, or rather, Sea of Glass.” He nodded to Charles. “—Although River would be the more appropriate word, but that's the French for you—is more than eleven kilometres (what on earth is that in miles?) in length and moves at a speed of . . .”
Laura turned away. The train slowed to negotiate a viaduct before levelling out alongside the Montenvers Hotel. Its terrace was already dotted with fashionable hats, their brims competing with the table parasols. The engine chugged into the station and wheezed to a halt. Its passengers stumbled out onto the platform, huddling into their coats and blowing on their hands, exclaiming at the sharpness of the thin, icy air, hovering, uncertain what to do.
Charles took her arm and led her to the viewing platform overhanging the glacier. Morris scurried off, pushing past others to secure the services of a guide who, with his ladder and thick socks for hire, was shouting his prices.
“I think it would be best if you wait here,” Charles said banging his hands together, his breath clouding around his face. “Retire to the ladies' waiting-room if you get too cold. We will meet you at the hotel for lunch. Shall we say in half an hour?”
Morris bowed and he and Charles made their way down the steps cut into the rock.
Laura felt light-headed, like a kite tugging on its string. Perhaps it was the altitude. It wasn't the sight of the glacier. She had expected a field of diamonds but it was a dirty blanket of icy grit. Tourists were moving aimlessly on its surface. With their ladders and lengths of rope, the scene resembled a game of snakes and ladders spread out below her. Behind her, the train driver and his companions were passing round a bottle of beer and exchanging desultory remarks and short grunts of laughter as they stoked, watered and polished the engine. Wafts of sulphurous smoke drifted down and melted in the milky blue of the mountains that guarded the head of the glacier. She checked Morris's guidebook he had left behind. They were called, 'Les Grandes Jorasses.' She didn't know what the name meant but it sounded suitably lofty.
“You came, then?” Theo sat down beside her. He slipped his haversack off his back
“Did you doubt me?”
He considered her remark. “No, but I …”
“Charles is playing snakes and ladders with Morris.”
“I see,” he said but clearly didn't.
“What does 'Grandes Jorasses' mean?”
“I don't know.” He was out of breath and distracted. “Does it matter?” Why was he so brittle? Had the altitude frozen his friendliness?
“I suppose not.”
They both pretended to admire the view; she looked left; he right.
He pointed to where she was crouched on the snow, plait in her mouth and a pencil and sketchbook in her hand.
“Laura,” he began. Then stopped. He reached out his hand. Instantly she was elated and deflated by the banality of his gesture. Was this what she had come here for? She didn't know but their hands didn't touch. Instead, a babble of voices broke out around them. One of the railway workers had left his fellows and was pushing his way towards the hotel. Another began to slide and slither down the steps towards the glacier, shouting and gesticulating. Soon the whole mountainside was stirred up as if an ant's nest had been poked by a giant stick.
“What is it? What's happening?” Theo was now on his feet, struggling with his haversack, calling to Eva.
Charles returned. She held her breath, bracing herself for his anger but he merely bowed to Theo. “It would seem that your country has declared war on France. It will not be long before our countries are enemies.” He held out his hand.
“Indeed so.” Theo took the hand but looked stiff and uncomfortable. He then turned to Laura and bowed. “Goodbye, Mrs Thompson. My sister and I must leave for Switzerland immediately.” Helping Eva to her feet, he guided her steps over the ice towards the track that led back down to the valley.
She took a step forward. “Wait!” she cried stupidly without knowing why. Her voice rang around the rocks, before fading away. Eva turned her head briefly but Theo didn't hesitate or turn round
“It's time we went home,” said Charles softly. He paused before whispering, “You are so, so lovely. I had not seen it until now.”
The platform was already crowded with ashen, silent faces peering at the sky in the expectation of thunderbolts crashing down from the blue or at least something more significant than a little toy engine with its comical funnel and scarlet carriages.
And then she noticed something else. “Where's Morris?”
“We had a small difference of opinion down on the glacier. When he heard the news, he said that if he had a pistol, he would have shot every German in sight without compunction. Man, woman or child.”
“And what did you say to that?”
“That he was a pompous ass.”
They both smiled. He took her hand and folded it in his. Theo and Eva were out of sight and she would only retain scraps of them in years to come. She knew they would prosper. Like raindrops on the ocean, nothing left a mark on people like Theo. But what of Charles? And the moment she posed the question, the mountains and the ice melted away, and she saw him in a ditch, splattered with blood-streaked mud, his eyes wide and staring, seeing nothing. She clutched her fur collar and stumbled.
“Are you all right?” he said and she was. And so was he. The mountains glittering in the brittle sunlight could teach her nothing. “Let us not take the train back,” she said, tugging his sleeve. “Let's walk.”
The snow kicked up by their boots circled them in luminescence until they entered the shadow of the pines leaving the sea of glass to itself.